Lascaux Cave PaintingsPicture if you will, the South-central part of France, two young boys running, playing ball, a sunny day, their dog chasing after them, trying to be a part of their noisy game. The landscape is green, the summer sun brings the morning a sense of warmth, drying the dewy dampness of the grassy, rolling hills. A scene from a Monet painting perhaps? No, but these boys and their dog are about to make art history. One boy throws the ball to the other. The throw is wild. The second boy misses it. The ball rolls along the ground and into a small hole, no more than a foot in diameter. Their dog chases the ball into the hole and disappears. The boys converge on the hole, hearing their dog barking from within. Frantically they dig with their hands, widening the hole, opening it up until they can just barely squeeze their slender, pre-adolescent boy-bodies inside. It is dark, but even with no more illumination than that coming from their hand-crafted entrance, they realise they have not stumbled upon just another long-forgotten cave for which the area near Lascaux, France, had long been known.
Kneeling in wonder with their dog, they gaze up in awe at the incredible panoply of animal images, starkly arrayed before them like something out of their childhood storybooks. Even though, in the darkness, they can see only a fraction of the magnificent painted images decorating the walls of their new-found "special place" as it came to be known, they instinctively understand its significance. Later that day, bringing shovels and lanterns, they widen their boy-size hole to nearly four feet in diameter. Now they can see more, bison, horses, cattle, all rendered in crisp, realistic detail. They have no inkling of how old the painted images are. The next day, when they allow the first adults to view their amazing discovery, the consensus of opinion is that the images are modern-day forgeries. The boys are even accused of having painted them themselves.
Later, as art and archaeology experts are brought in to inspect the walls, the real importance of the boys' accidental discovery begins to dawn. The paintings are estimated to be 15,000 years old, at the time, by far the oldest artwork known to man. Further into the cave, the famous "Hall of Bulls" is discovered. Realistic images of horses, bulls, and reindeer are superimposed upon one another, apparently stampeding in all directions. For the most part, the images are fairly linear, but often there are coloured masses, amazing, only slightly stylised details, and everywhere, a feeling of dynamic movement that could only have come from the memories and imaginations of the primitive inhabitants of the region as they struggled to hunt and kill the very beasts they also immortalised with their crude tools and exquisite renderings. Yet there is nothing crude about these figures. There is foreshortening, and contrasts of light and dark, creating illusions of three-dimensional beings. It is little wonder France later became an important centre of art and culture for much of Western Europe. Even 15,000 years before, there was already an impressive tradition of painting and drawing.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
9 May 1998