I'll take for granted you've all heard about the 30,000 year old cave art found in Southern France, unless, of course, you've been living in a cave. But there's a good chance you have not seen Werner Herzog's 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. We watched it last night. It's excellent. You need to see it.
The documentary was shot in 3D using small, specially designed digital cameras with very little light and a small crew. The cave is sealed behind a steel door, keeping it nearly as pristine as when Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet first discovered it in 1994. Herzog and his crew of paleontologists, archaeologists, geologists, even a master perfumer, received permission from the French Ministry to enter and film inside the cave. The film conveys the sloping, textured feel of the cave's calcite covered walls, stalagmites and stalacites reaching toward each other, creating a dramatic, draped and toothed environment.
The floor of the cave is also covered in crystal, twinkling calcites, occasionally covering the skull or vertebrae of the extinct cave bear. And then we see the paintings, clear and distinct, practiced and deliberate, horses and rhinoceros, panthers, bears, reindeer, owls, hand stencils and stamps. Some are engravings, some iron oxide paintings, some charcoal. The experts believe there was more than one artist working in the cave, as many as five thousand years apart.
Watching the film with Tim the artist, of course we noticed the skill with which these paintings were made. One of the charcoal paintings of a horse was made with a single stroke measuring nearly six feet in length. Did the artist practice in the dirt with a stick? Did he make smaller, or other large paintings on rocks and mountain sides in charcoal that have since been buried or weathered down to pebbles? Did the artist work here from smaller versions, the cave paintings scaled up copies? The images themselves are fairly sophisticated, the materials, basic. Did the artist create these works thinking, here is a piece of my life, of what the present looks like now, and I'm leaving it for future generations? Was the artist thinking 300 years out, 500, a 1,000? Could he even imagine 30,000 years after his existence? I can't. Earth will be another planet entirely, just as it was then.
We know so little about the early homo sapiens. Current theories suggest we did not evolve from neanderthals but were a separate species altogether. And there are theories that aliens from another universe mated with neanderthals and the result was the homo sapien. Did consciousness in the human mind suddenly appear, or was it a slow evolution? Was the artist with the crooked little finger in Chauvet Cave an outcast? Did his tribe believe he was wasting his time with art? Was he an angry, anxious teenager expressing his frustration on the secret walls? Was it a gallery exhibition? Did the whole village attend? Except maybe the old man at the end of the road, mean and bitter, perhaps resentful he never followed his dream to paint caves?
As Tim remarked, the artist was a keen observer. The animal illustrations are correct and detailed, the images painted with the curves and undulations of the cave wall, suggest movement and an understanding of spacial relations. There were no books, no photos, no Internet with which to study the animals. This artist spent much of his time among the wild beasts.
All any artist wants, visual, musical, performed or written, is to share an expression of what it's like to be alive. In my small way, I am connected to the artist of the 30,000 year old cave paintings. Creatives and thinkers, we are leaving our mark in hopes to better understand ourselves and to lend some clue for others to better understand themselves. I don't think it's too far out to consider the possibility of a common consciousness centuries apart. Who knows, maybe we're related.