I He was recently awakened at night by lions, their eyes gleaming in the dark from blunt, rectangular faces as they stalked bison through an ancient, barren meadow. However, when I regained consciousness, I realized that I was not going to be eaten alive. This was simply one of the dangers of spending too much time looking at rock art images on the web.
Cave artists could do it all. The faces of the animals they painted are exquisite portraits, while their bodies are rendered in perfect perspective. But wait, weren’t these supposed to be the great achievements of European art? After all, in his classic study The Story of Art, EH Gombrich recounts how Western art took off when the ancient Greeks learned to show movement, that perspective was discovered in 15th-century Europe, and that communication of sensation instead of the seen was the gift of the impressionists. Gombrich probably hadn’t seen much rock art. Lascaux, a series of caves in the French Dordogne, was a recent discovery when he published his book in 1950, and Chauvet, also in France, was not found until 1994.
“Since Lascaux,” Picasso is supposed to have said after seeing the famous ice age cave paintings in 1940, “we have not invented anything.” Unfortunately the quote is hard to find. But he should have said so, because it fits the intuition that permeates his work, with his appetite for influences ranging from ancient Iberian statuettes to African masks. In other words, the history of that art is not a trajectory of ascent, but rather a looping spiral, constantly retracing its steps.
When the pandemic started, The Guardian switched their Masterclasses online and challenged me, one of their tutors, to come up with a topic. “Okay,” I thought. “How about a virtual journey through the entire history of art?” But, like Picasso, I was stuck from the start. And Picasso was right: the more you look at the images on the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet, the more you realize that art has not really invented anything since those days at the end of the ice age.
It is difficult to realize the extent to which these ancient artists anticipated the future. It takes time to fully absorb this, say, a year in and occasionally out of lockdown. I have visited, in person, some of the most spectacular caves: Cougnac, Pech Merle, Niaux. But, in the last 12 months, I’ve gone on an online odyssey in both the caves I’ve been to and the ones I’ll probably never see. (Chauvet and Lascaux are permanently closed, while others can only be reached by experienced divers.) In that time, I have come to fully appreciate the amazing nature of this primal creativity.
Rock art makes the history of art quite out of date. That story of ascending ascent, of European masters gradually dominating reality, from the Parthenon frieze to Rembrandt’s eyes, is simply not true. It turns out that perspective, shading, movement, and expressiveness aren’t, after all, hard-won Western discoveries. Rather, they are part of the human mind’s toolkit.
How does this reveal the art of the ice age? We, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa no more than 300,000 years ago. There is evidence of art, potentially even paintings, in South Africa up to 100,000 years ago. Then, 30,000 years ago, an astonishingly accomplished art culture burst onto the scene, at least from what we have been able to find. This took place in the most recent of the Earth’s ice ages, a time when Europe was anything but hospitable. However, the rock art shows why humans migrated there: to hunt mammoths, rhinos, hippos, and deer. The tradition of cave painting continued until the end of that ice age, some 10,000 years ago.
To put this in perspective, the Great Pyramid of Giza dates back 4,600 years; the sculptures of the Parthenon from 2,650 years ago; the plaques from the Oba palace in Benin up to 600 years ago; The Great Wave of Hokusai from two centuries ago. Rock art exists on a different time scale, so different that art historians tend to dismiss it, leaving its importance to evolutionary scientists. You are wrong. Because this art contains the key to a more humane and complete art history.
If Ice Age people who hunted and foraged for food and had no concept of literacy could draw and paint like Leonardo da Vinci, that leaves the art narrative as an ascent towards observation but towards perfection. In fact, the artists of the ice age had much in common with the genius of the Renaissance. On the one hand, they shared an obsession with representing animals. The joy of exploring the locked cave art, online and in books, was seeing all of these creatures up close: lions stalking bison, an owl engraving, a pike relief, a painting of a duck on a pole. One of my favorites is a charcoal drawing of a flat fish, about 1.5 meters long, in La Pileta cave in Andalusia. You can see their curious upturned face, that poignant evolutionary evidence that plaice and sole adapted from vertically swimming fish, flipping their bodies to live on the seafloor.
So here is a recently evolved homo sapiens representing a surprisingly evolved animal companion. That’s what makes rock art so fascinating: it records the moment consciousness makes an entrance. Before 33,000 years ago, all of our evidence for the natural world came from fossils, revealing the history of life from single-celled creatures to dinosaurs and mammals. Then all of a sudden the humans show up, and they’re doing portraits. As a consequence, the extinct animals of the ice age do not only exist as fossils or frozen remains of Siberia. They also live in art.
If representation is not a slowly accumulated skill, developed by Western artists over the centuries, but something that arose naturally to early humans, then the history of art. I can not be it progress or promotion. Instead, it is a story of elections. And many of them have to do with identity. Egyptian art, Aztec art, and Easter Island sculptures display a strong power of observation, but choose to embed that eye for reality within a formalized “style.”
Style exists to define, from the national to the religious, down to the level of personal identity. We are ancient Egyptians and we walk sideways with our faces turned, do you have a problem with that? Rock art also has stylistic features. The handprints are recurring, along with red dots and geometric patterns. As well as pointing out all the ways later humans would use abstract symbols to define themselves, they look forward to modern art.
While my virtual rock art trip was fun, the real thing is unforgettable. A few years ago my family and I visited Niaux, a painted cave in the Pyrenees. Niaux has a spectacular location, overlooking a mountainous valley. The people who created the art it contains lived on the other side of the valley. They must have seen Niaux, on the other side of the divide, as a special place, like a temple or a cathedral. Its imposing natural entrance, a towering stone archway, adds to its sacred aura.
To get to the art, you have to walk through long, sometimes narrow corridors, lit only by the lamp in your own helmet. The Niaux artists, we can gather, did not intend for the experience of viewing their art to be easy. After these corridors, you suddenly emerge into a large and terrifying chamber, now called Salon Noir. There, on its walls, are bison drawn in black charcoal, but with humanoid faces. They are mythical beasts, the ancestors of Picasso’s Minotaur.
When we left the cave, our taxi had not shown up. The site was shutting down and our phones were not working. But we weren’t worried. Perhaps, echoing a theory about cave artists, we were high on lack of oxygen. Or maybe this was an artistic pilgrimage worth getting stuck on a mountain for.
Across the globe, throughout the centuries, there are infinite varieties of art to behold and marvel at. But it doesn’t get better than this. That is why, with all the possible options online, I am continually drawn back to the cave.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism