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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part VIII: The Venus figures

Three Venuses: From left to right: Dolni Vestonice (29-25,000 BP. Venus of Willendorf (40-30,000 BP). Venus from Lespuge (26-24,000 BP).

by Richard W. Wise

copyright: 2022

 

Paleo artists did not limit themselves to drawing, painting and bas-relief; also produced three-dimensional sculpture. These include the famous "Venus" or Dolni figures. The oldest thus far, the Venus of Hohle Fels, dated to the Aurignacian Period (30-40,000 BP), was found in Germany.

 

These are sculptures of women. Many, though not all, are headless and naked with wide hips, bulging stomachs, legs and distinctly defined vulvas. This has led many experts to view them as votive or fertility objects or perhaps goddesses.

 

There are stylistic similarities, but they are not all the same. There are fat ones and skinny ones, compact and attenuated Venuses. Some are more, some less abstract. Some, particularly the French examples, are naked (naturally), but some, most notably those found in what is now Russia, are fully clothed. These Russian examples have been tagged: "Venuses in furs." The small statues range from Siberia to Northern Italy and are between 40,000-10,000 years old, attesting to an astonishing artistic continuity.
 
Like the work of Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, and Louise Bourgeois---artists strongly influenced by cave art---they demonstrate a very sophisticated ability to reduce form from complex to simple while retaining the essential and evocative. 

 
This artistic sensibility was not limited to Western Europe or to the female figure. A recent discovery of a 13,500-year-old bird figurine at Linjin in Henan Province demonstrates a similar ability to capture the essential. Though not a representation of the human form, the artist who created this Paleolithic bird reduced and captured what Constantin Brâncuși called: "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." For Brâncuși, the abstract is the more real because it captures that essence.

The female form is a recurring figure in Western art. The Venus figures represent a high-water mark in Prehistoric art.
 
Next: The Art of the Neanderthals
 

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The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part VII. The Beauties of Le Grotte de Cougnac

by Richard W. Wise

Author: The Dawning: 31,000 BC

copyright 2022

 

Of all the caves we visited, Grotte Cougnac won first prize for its natural beauty. In its broad chambers, slender stalactites drip from the high ceilings and translucent tubes cluster in masses like soda straws. Thin stalagmites rise from the floor—some stubby and phallic. Others have mated with stalactites to form elegantly shaped columns that remind us of a cathedral nave by Antoni Gaudi.
 
Dating back to the early Gravettian Period (33,000, some say 28,000-21,000 BP), its art contains the oldest art of the painted caves clustered around Les Eyzes de Tayak. Some may even be contemporary with the latest art created at Chauvet (31,000 BP). It should be noted that the periods discussed are specific to Central and Western Europe and are based on the evolution not of art but of tool-making technologies. 
 
The art throughout the caves is highly stylized, meaning that the style of the art in one cave adheres to conventions similar to those of other caves with renderings of the same period.
 
Each figure seems to begin with a gracefully drawn backline that defines the subject's ultimate shape. The outlines are often a single uninterrupted line. The elegance of line indicates a well-trained eye and hand. Drawing on cave walls, there was no way to erase or start over. The animals drawn are realistic, but these are icons. This is not true of Chauvet. The 35,000-year-old art is naturalistic; animals possess a singular individuality not present in the later art. Perhaps, it is the original which provided the basis for the stylization and uniformity which came later.  
 
The images, drawn in wood and bone charcoal and red ochre, include ibex, horses, and a beautifully rendered frieze of megaloceros—an ancient species of giant elk crowned with magnificent racks of antlers (see above). This image is among the oldest, with a Carbon 14 date between 30-24,000 BP. Showing a herd in motion, the frieze is reminiscent of some of the art at Chauvet, though not nearly so well executed. This period corresponded to the last glacial maximum when winter temperatures were at their lowest.
 
As early as 50,000 years ago, the cave was visited by Neanderthals, who sheltered in the entrance but probably did not explore the cave in depth. The caves were in use by Homo Sapiens for over 10,000 years.
 
The cave also boasts two rare anthropomorphic figures. One, drawn in charcoal, is of a crudely drawn man-like figure bent forward and pierced by what appears to be seven spears. The other, probably drawn by the same hand, is incomplete, beginning just below the shoulders with three spears, one rather uncomfortably piercing the figure between the buttocks. Dated to 25,000 years BP, these drawings are virtually identical to figures found at Pech-Merle and Lascaux.
 
 
Next: The Venus Figures, Part I. Stay tuned.

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The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part VI: The Sculpture

Beautifully executed ibex bas-relief carved in limestone: Abri de Cap Blanc

by Richard W. Wise,

Author: The Dawning: 31,000 BC

copyright: 2022

 

The walls at Bernifal and Lascaux and other caves are filled with engravings, including two engraved handprints not seen elsewhere. These are hard to photograph but show a mastery of line that could only have been obtained t 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 grueling process required of students of Suma-e painting and Japanese calligraphy. The apprentice practices making the same brush stroke until its execution becomes ingrained and almost automatic. It is a technique difficult to master with a supple brush and much harder with a mineral crayon or a flint burin.
 
Beautiful, precise, highly stylized engravings of animals are also found as portable art. At the museum at Les Eyzes, there are s engraved bones and a particularly famous engraving known as the licking bison rendered on mammoth ivory (above image).
 
On our first day in Les Eyzes, we visited Abri du Cap Blanc, an excavated sheltered overhang that was once open to the weather. The site has since been enclosed. Here we saw the magnificent horse sculptures.

 

These are bas-reliefs carved out of solid rock. The medium is limestone, a relatively soft sedimentary rock with a hardness of 2-3 on the MOHS Scale. The sculpture was chipped away using flint tools. Flint occurs in limestone and measures 7.0 on the MOHS scale. These are large horses and bovids—life-size sculptures—polished and py. The relief is more or less lifelike except for the distended body shape, which is characteristic of the art of the Magdalenian Period.
 
Like Colorito, a technique characteristic of the Baroque Period and the Impressionist juxtaposition of primary hues, Paleolithic art can be broken down into artistic/technical conventions which define periods. For example, in paintings of bison, the head is shown in profile, but the horns are executed in a two-thirds view with the shoulders facing toward the viewer. Also, at Lascaux, we see the so-called "Chinese Horses" with their unnaturally small heads. These conventions are characteristic of the Magdalenian Period (13-17,000 BP), during which the great majority of the art was produced. The subject matter also changes.
 
During the earlier Aurignacian Period (43-26,000 BP) at Chauvet, the depictions concentrated on predators, lions, and bears. In the Magdalenian, the focus was on grazing animals; horses, aurochs, ibex, and bison. Horses dominate at Lascaux.
 
Next: The Beauties of Grotte Cougnac. Stay tuned.

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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 III


 
By Richard W. Wise
©2022

 Did I say seven? More like ten days in Southern France devoted to cave art. From Vallon Pont d'Arc to Les Eyzes de Tayak, we've visited Chauvet, Bernifal, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Cougnac, Rouffignac and Abri du Cap Blanc. The first cave, Chauvet, one of the most important, is also the oldest dating 33-36,000 BP. The caves clustered around Les Eyzes are all from the Magdalenian Period 24-17,000 BP. Our travels covered about five hundred miles.
 
The paintings at Chauvet are true marvels. Out The art is about predators not the grazing animals typical of the caves at Les Eyzes. Cave lions, mammoth, cave bears and wholly rhinoceroses make up 65% of the art.
 
A brace of lions, visible only to the withers—heads outstretched—stalking the primeval taiga. Horses—each an individual—whiney and neigh. Below them, a pair of Wooly Rhinos meet horn-to-horn. Another group of stacked Rhino, the first six back lines only, or is it a single multi-legged proto-futurist animal, shown in multiple poses, shaking his horned head?
 
Most of what is seen at Chauvet are charcoal drawings. Much easier to date than later works where the artists used a mineral, Magnesium dioxide to draw the black outlines. The age of the oldest drawings was recalibrated in 2020 to 36,500 BP. 
 
The images portrayed are sophisticated. They have a freshness and originality lacking in the later works in Lascaux and Altamira There is some evidence of stylization, but it is limited. Is it any wonder that its discovery in 1994 threw the preconceived linear evolution of art into a cocked hat?  There is evidence that many groups visited Chauvet over the millennia prior to the landslide that sealed it 22,000 years ago. Perhaps, Chauvet acted as an inspiration to later painters.
 
Could Chauvet have been a beginning, the creative spark that resulted in a school of painting that lasted more than 20,000 years? And, what does it say about the cultural evolution of European Homo Sapiens? Stylized art is, after all, degenerate art. It takes creativity and turns it into uniformity. It is also an indicator of a maturing, settled culture. 
 
Archaeologically, the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern France is divided into five broad successive periods; Aurignacian (∼39,500–34,000 BP), Gravettian (∼34,000–26,100 BP), Solutrean (∼26,100–24,600 BP), Magdalenian (∼24,600–15,500 BP) and Azilian (∼15,500–11,500 BP). BP means "Before present" which is figured from the year 1950. The problem is coming up with a basis for these divisions, if divisions they are. All we have is a pile of bones in one hand and a pile of flint in the other. In some cases; we have images, painting, engraving, drawing and sculpture which is often ignored in archeologists  demographic evaluation of cultures in these successive periods.
 
Next: Spectacular Lascaux. Stay tuned.

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