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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of France Part II

A Paleolithic portrait approximately 17,000 years old. Benfifal Cave near Les Eyzes.

This portrait is unique. We were not allowed to take pictures. The image, downloaded from the internet, hardly does the portrait justice. What we saw in the flashlight's beam was a distinct, image of a man with a long oval face perfectly outlined in black, prominent eyes and thick eyebrows and black hair worn in a topknot. When lit from the side, he appeared to have a moustache. Was this a self-portrait? Who was he? He looks hauntingly modern. He could be my neighbor.


My immediate question: could it be a later drawing. "No!" the guide explains, the portrait is rendered in Manganese dioxide which cannot be directly dated. The calcite dripping covering the image clearly dates it as prehistoric. The images in the cave are Magdelenian--15,000 years old. Our guide believes the portrait to be of the same age.
The walls at Benifal and Lascaux and other caves are filled with engravings. These are hard to photograph but show a real mastery of line that could only have been obtained though much practice. The lines show a consistent flow and the designs are repetitive in a given cave.  This suggests a training method similar to the teaching of Suma-e painting or Japanese calligraphy.


The student practices making the same brush stroke over and over until its execution becomes ingrained and almost automatic. It is a technique difficult enough to master with a supple brush and harder with a flint burin.
Beautiful, precise, highly stylized engravings of animals are also found on portable art. At the museum at Les Eyzes, there are a number of engraved bones and a particularly famous engraving known as the licking bison rendered on mammoth ivory. https://www.facebook.com/richardwwisebooks


Part III, Stay tuned.

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The Painted Caves of France Part I

By Richard W. Wise
I am finishing up my soon to be published historical novel,The Dawning: 31,000 BC scheduled for publication in October. The action takes place in and near the famous Chauvet Cave of Southwestern France. The cave art figures in the narrative. I decided to go in case there was something I missed and there was. Here are my impressions.


Seven days in Southern France devoted to cave art. From Vallon Pont d'Arc to Les Eyzes de Tayak, we've visited Chauvet, Benifal, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Cougnac, Rouffignac and Abri du Cap Blanc. We've traveled about five hundred miles.
Most of the works are outlined in black. The artist usually used a crayon of Magnesium dioxide, pine or bone charcoal. Particularly as Lascaux, the animals were outlined using a masking/blowing technique, a form of spray painting. It appears that the artist began with the line of the back. What is amazing is how these elegant lines which beautifully define the animals shape were often drawn with a single uninterrupted stroke. Using these techniques on cave walls it is not possible to erase and start over.
The ubiquitous negative hand prints which are found in many caves, including those in Australia, Indonesia and the American Southwest. The artist either fills his mouth with powdered charcoal or ochre, uses a stencil and blows the powder onto the wall or uses a blowpipe.
The lyrical elegance of line reminds me of Matisse.  How many times must this stroke been practiced? Was it done in sand, with a graver on shale or perhaps on a deerskin stretched across a frame as was done by our own Southwestern native Americans.
There are basically three colors; black, white and red. The white, normally the background rock, the red is red ochre (powdered iron/hematite drawn with crayon or blown). The technique was sophisticated. The ochre heated to various temperatures, turned brownish, orangy, red and even purple.
At Benifal, near the town of Les Eyzes, we got our biggest surprise when our guide trained the beam of her flashlight on a beautifully drawn portrait of a Paleolithic man. Human representations are rare; almost non-existent in French Paleo art. Unlike the animal rendering, when figures do appear, they tend to be vague, partial and not well rendered. These figures are best described as anthropomorphic (man like) rather than as clear images of humans.


Part II, A Big Surprise: CLICK READ PART TWO

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