“We have invented nothing” snorted Picasso, upon seeing the prehistoric paintings on the walls of cave Lascaux, in France.
Indeed, what he encountered there must have been humbling: over 600 expertly rendered pictures of animals, painted over 25,000 years ago, before any supposed revolution in art.
These cave paintings gained massive notoriety in the 20th century, George Bataille even going as far as to deem them the earliest pieces of art ever produced, in Lascaux, or the Birth of Art. Indeed, out of all the art that would’ve been produced at the time, cave paintings had the best chance of survival. Whatever happened outside the cave would only survive by miracle. And even though many theories have tried to explain the skilled hand of the cave painter (such as the more ludicrous ones suggesting primitive people entering drug-induced trances and practicing mysterious rituals) Desmond Morris presents a more believable account of the matter.
He begins by shrugging off any shamanistic fantasies when calling to attention the expert hands that strived to create accurate portrayals of the animals. The steady lines and knowledge of the subject matter reveals an artist in control of all their mental faculties, far from being entranced by any prehistoric mushroom.
Morris then goes on to closely examine the images and group them into two categories: small abstract signs and animal portraits. He observes that there’s no sense of composition among the hundreds of paintings, only juxtapositions of animals, some overlapping others due to lack of space. What is unusual about the images is that they deliberately aim at naturalism: “there’s no exaggeration, no playing with shapes and no distortion of proportions” which can be seen in other early art forms. And although, to the modern eye, there seems to be no tact to these “doodles”, what should be remembered are the conditions in which they were produced: in the humid darkness of the cave, by the flickering light of fire, using only rudimentary pigments and the simplest of painting equipment.
In the 1930s, Australian artist Percy Leason became enthralled with the paintings to the point of pedanticism. However, his extensive documentation gave a truly valuable insight on the paintings found in Altamira cave, Spain: he pointed out how the animals’ bellies were exaggerated, as if “pushed forward towards the viewer”. Moreover, their legs were stiff and the feet were pointing downwards in a tiptoe position, not baring the weight of the animal itself. He concluded that the animals depicted were actually prey, killed by fellow cavemen and painted as they were lying down, dead. Unbeknownst to him, the animals painted in Lascaux followed the same rules.
To prove his point, Leason took it upon himself to photograph dead animals at the abattoir, and compared his images with the cave paintings. His papers went unnoticed with the outbreak of World War II, but one keen reader picked up on his studies.
William Riddell, an artist at the time who specialised in paintings of mammoth hunts and other prehistoric endeavors, simply refused to believe that such a large prey could have been carried back to the cave to serve as model for the artists. Instead, he suggested that cave painters relied on visual memories of the animals lying before them after a hunt, that they would later reproduce back on cave walls.
Desmond Morris believes another thing. He considers them drawing from visual memory implausible, but rather that prehistoric artists relied on sketches made on sight.
We like to think of prehistoric societies only engaging in their activities inside the cave because that’s where most of their remnants were preserved. But the fact that they had painting equipment, leather, and pigments at their disposal should make us think outside of the box. Or outside of the cave, in this instance. This explanation seems common sense, however modern the idea.
But this theory brings about a new concern: why would cavemen bother with sketching and then painting their hunt trophies on walls?
The large animals depicted didn’t correspond to most of the bones found in caves, belonging to smaller, insignificant animals. Indeed, cavemen never took the time to document every bird or squirrel they preyed on, but rather commemorated the large beasts: the bison, the wild ox, horses and armored rhinos.
As for the abstract signs mentioned earlier, they might be indications of the location or tactic used to slay the creatures.
Perhaps the strangest thing about these paintings is that the style remained unchanged for thousands of years. A bison painting from 25,000 years shows the same stylistic particularities of another one, dating from 15,000 years ago. This explains the advanced skill of the caveman who so accurately and proportionately portrayed the beast in only a few strokes, but it also comes as a wonder to the modern artist who is used to trends changing every other year.
This article is based on the chapter “Prehistoric Art” in The Artistic Ape by Desmond Morris. All the quotes are from there, as well.