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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part IV Lascaux

An auroch (ancient species of cattle) drawn in Manganese Dioxide.The last auroch in Europe dies in the 16th century.

 

by Richard W. Wise 

 

Like Chauvet, at Lascaux, most of the works are outlined in black. At Chauvet, the artists used charcoal. At Lascaux and many of the caves surrounding Les Eyzes de Tayac, artists usually used a crayon of Magnesium dioxide. It appears that the artist began with the line of the back.

 

What is amazing is how these elegant lines which so beautifully define the animals' shape were drawn with a single uninterrupted stroke. Using these techniques on cave walls it is not possible to erase and start over. At Lascaux, another technique was used. The outlines were made using a masking/blowing technique, an early form of spray painting.
 
The ubiquitous negative handprints found at both Chauvet and Lascaux are also found in caves throughout the world including Australia, Indonesia, and the American Southwest. The artist either fills his mouth with powdered charcoal or ochre and using his hand---or perhaps that of another---as a stencil blows the powder onto the wall or worked with a primitive blowpipe. Many of these prints appear to have been created by women. Handprints can be found at both Chauvet and Lascaux with 15,000 years between them. 
 
The lyrical elegance and mastery of line remind me of Matisse or the Suma-e artists of Japan. How many times must this stroke have been drawn, and meticulously practiced to reach this level of perfection? Was it practiced in sand or with a graver on flat pieces of shale or perhaps on a deerskin stretched across a frame as was done by native Americans in the Southwest?
 

The drawings at Lascaux were created using, primarily, a range of ochres (iron oxides) Drawings or paintings in red ochre are found all over the world. Red ochre was also smeared on the bodies of the dead in both Neanderthal and Cro Magnon burials. The hue can be quite saturated. Red is one of the first colors to be recognized and named in primitive cultures. Perhaps—surprise, surprise— the color of blood had symbolic meaning.

 

Blood red ochre could be created by heating yellow ochre to approximately1,000 C. It passes through yellowish brown to purple, blood red, and finally black. The palate was quite sophisticated. Other colors such as, umber and burnt umber were also used.

 

Heating technology was also used to create glues and to improve the working characteristics of flint tools.
 
Next: The Portrait at Bernifal. Stay tuned.

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