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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part V

Figure 5: Portrait of a man drawn in Magnesium dioxide. Bernifal Cave, near Les Eyzes. The face, an almost perfect oval, is much more distinct than shown here. 12,000 BP?

 

by Richard W. Wise

 

Copyright: 2022

 

At Bernifal, near the town of Les Eyzes, we got our biggest surprise. Our guide, Christine Desdemaines Hugon, trained the beam of her flashlight on the cave wall, and a beautifully drawn portrait of a Paleolithic man emerged. Human representations are rare—almost non-existent in French Paleo art. Unlike animal renderings, anthropomorphic figures, when they do appear, tend to be vaguely rendered, partial and indistinct. They are often hybrid figures like the Lion Man and the famous Sorcerer (La Grotte du Roc Saint Cirq). These images are best described as anthropomorphic and man-like, rather than as distinct images of human beings. 

 

This portrait is one of the unique images in Bernifal and all of the caves of Southern France. We were not allowed to take pictures. The image, downloaded from the internet, hardly does the portrait justice. The flashlight's beam revealed a distinct, realistic image of a man with a long oval, pale white face outlined in black, prominent eyes and eyebrows, nose and mouth with black hair worn in a topknot gazing out at us. 
 
Granted, our flashlight projected a white light measuring about 5500 kelvin. The artist would have been using the light of a direct flame at perhaps 1500 kelvin. Even so, unlike the image here, what we saw was white and very well-defined; the white color may have been due to calcite drippings that covered the portrait. The face would have been more poignant if seen against the natural gray background of the cave.
 
My immediate question: could it be a later drawing? No! The guide explained, the portrait is rendered not in charcoal but in Manganese dioxide, a chemical compound that cannot be dated directly. The calcite encrustation dates it as prehistoric.
 
To me, he resembled a Samurai warrior with Western eyes. Lit from the side, he sported a mustache. Who was he? Was this a self-portrait of the artist? He looks deceptively modern. He could be my neighbor. The artist, whoever he was, broke a taboo, but what sort of taboo? Human-like images are ubiquitous in Paleolithic art---though not so much in Southern France, where there is almost a complete lack. If were are talking about a realistic portraits, such as those at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira, there, there are none.
 
Next: Prehistoric Engravers. Stay tuned.



  

 

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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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