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 (stay tuned)