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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.
 

 

Part III, Stay tuned.
 

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