Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave / Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire -- NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1996

After seeing Werner Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I was moved to check out a book about the Chauvet Cave. Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave was at my fingertips, so it filled the bill more or less well enough. The authors are the three spelunkers who discovered Chauvet Cave. The text is mostly an colloquial account of the day of their discovery and the efforts they made to protect the cave from damage before they revealed its whereabouts to the French authorities. The writing style clearly expresses the discover's excitement and their dedication to protecting what has turned out to be the oldest know painting in the world. Carbon dating indicates that the oldest images may have been created about 31,000 years ago.

The most thrilling aspect of the book is, however, the photographs of the artwork itself. There are eighty in all. The images are of extremely high quality, allowing the viewer to study the finest details of the work. The cave is decorated with images of rhinoceroses, lions, mammoths, horses, bison, bears, reindeer, aurochs, ibex, stags, a panther, and what is guessed to be a hyena. Among the most unusual depictions is a great horned owl that was etched into the side of the cave and a human figure with the head of a bison which according to the authors, "evokes the 'sorcerers' of Les Trois-Freres in the Ariege and Gabillou in the Dordogne," two other decorated caves. There are also a number of other animal figures that at the time of publication had not been identified with any particular species.

The art itself has, of course, a significant degree of stylistic similarities; however, many of the drawings are roughly executed and many are stylized, but an amzaing number show a remarkable realism and sensitivity to perspective and the anatomy of the subject. With the exception of a small number of etched figures, they are all drawn in black charcoal or red ochre. Many employ delicate shading.

Along with the art, a rich store of bones, mostly cave bear bones, were found in the cave. The authors provide some discussion of their significance, but the it's no surprise that these relics are little more than an interesting diversion from the main event.

This particular edition of Dawn of Art was published not much more than a year after the cave's discovery. Another paperback edition was released some five years later. While the work does a fine job showing us the art, one is left with a desire to read about the conclusions that art historians and archaeologist have drawn in the 17 years since the cave's discovery.

Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams provides a wonderful experience of the art as we view it in a large scale in a darkened theatre, but re-examining fine art book reproductions shows us what the film cannot and allows us to linger over specific images that repay close, extended attention.

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