During my summer reading, I chanced upon a fascinating book, The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis. He’s been fortunate to see paintings at Font-de-Gaume near the Vezere River in France as well other cave art. He was astounded to see the way the cave artists used the contours of the cave walls to enhance their work. The powerful shoulders of bison, for instance, are often painted over a bulge in the rock that makes the muscles of the animals seem to swell realistically and gives the work a dimension that would have been impossible on a flat surface. “This indicates that, at least some of the time, the cave artists painted the animals suggested by the wall rather than imposing their own ideas onto the surface.”
|Rare among cave paintings because it shows a moment of affection|
Ice Age painting of Reindeer, in Font-de-Gaume Cave, France
In 1902, a twenty-five-year-old priest named Henri Breuil decided studying prehistoric art was his calling in life. He devoted his considerable energy and intellect to that calling for the next fifty-five years. He called the ancient times The Reindeer Age. He made copies, usually by candlelight, of the paintings he encountered in explorations of at least seventy-three caves.
When Pablo Picasso, then only twenty-five years old, saw Breuil’s copies in La Caverne d’Altamira, he quickly went to see the cave for himself. Most of the caves are now closed to the public. Breuil’s culminating work is Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, published in 1952.
Breuil believed that art began with a desire for disguise, particularly disguise with masks. The masks were useful during hunts since a man could approach his prey more easily while in disguise. The mask was assumed to possess a magical power; its ceremonial use was employed in preparations or ceremonies supposed to exert a positive outcome in a hunt. Breuil, a priest, concluded that religion owes its existence to art.
Masks did not lead directly to painting on walls. Breuill believed “masks must have soon led to the making of dolls.” Painting came from noticing the resemblance between animals or humans and the lines made by fingers when they were scraped through clay or down the wet sides of cave walls. At first these marks were accidental, but then were made on purpose. He wondered why wall art so rapidly took an important place in human activity in Western Europe and perhaps Africa but not everywhere, even in these regions.
His conclusion was hunting. According to Breuil it was hunters and only hunters who invented and refined painting in caves because the art required a profound knowledge of the appearance of animals. “Only daily experience in the life of a big game hunter can give that information; if there is no big game hunting, there is no naturalistic wall art.”
Henri Breunil's copy of Bison from a cave wall
“The Cro-Magnon shellfish eaters of the sea coasts usually lacked that basic psychology and experience; hunting snails did not create nor feed their artistic imagination, nor were they even clever workers.”
“On the other hand, hunters of Rhinoceros, Mammoths, great Stags, Bulls, wild Horses, not to mention Bears and Lions, accumulated, during their dangerous lives, powerful and dynamic visual impressions, and it is they who created and developed the wall art of our caverns. Everywhere it was big game hunters who produced the beautiful, naturalistic art.”
“This is no longer the work of the individual,” he says, “but a collective, social affair, showing a true spiritual unity, an orthodoxy, suggesting some sort of institution registering the development of this art by the selection and instruction of those mostly highly gifted.”
But what was the purpose of the art? Was it simply for beauty’s sake or was it not really aesthetic at all, nothing more than part of a ritual of hunting magic? Breuil thought it was probably both: “Without the artistic temperament with its adoration of beauty, no great art could exist nor develop. But without a society considering the artist’s work of capital interest, the artist could not live nor found a school where his technical discoveries and his passion for beauty could continue and be transmitted through space and time.”
Gregory Curtis concludes: “Breuil’s imagined world had a few people with real genius who were supported, even revered, by a society whose members came reverently into the caves to perform rituals for the hunt.”
The discoveries of cave art have enriched the vocabulary of art in that we still find wonderful skill in these earliest known marks made by man.