Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

In this documentary, Werner Herzog films the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, where cave paintings were discovered in 2004. Put by some archeologists at around 30,000 years old, they are said to be the oldest cave paintings on record, and twice as old as any previously found.

In 2004, three French cavers walking in the vicinity detected an air current brushing their cheeks. Tracking down its source, they scraped away at rock until they unsealed a cave that had been closed for millennia. The French government allowed Herzog’s crew privileged access to the cave.

We see paintings of tender-eyed bison, soulful horses, rhinoceroses hitting horns so you can almost hear them ringing with the sound. A lioness with lips puckering in warning displeasure as a male lion angles for sex when she’s not ready.

The cave walls undulate as voluptuously as the hills of the region in the South of France, and the ancient painters have made use of the rock fluctuation to make the animals seem as if they were still in motion; the horses seem still to gallop. Eyes of animals are drawn with sensitivity, as if the artist were evoking not simply the flesh but the soul as well. Over the muscled shoulder blades, just beyond the charcoal-scraped outlines, seems to hover the numina of the herd.

The cave painters set fires in the cave, casting their long shadows against its walls, now filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and one expert evokes the image of them dancing with their flickering shadows, an art form in its own right. In this interesting era, Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals coexisted, and yet, only our Homo Sapiens ancestors constructed such symbolic work.

One expert in the era explains that many of our modern divisions, for example that between humans and animals, would simply not have held in the psyche of these Pleistocene action painters. Beast of beasts, beast among beasts. A woman, denoted by black pubic triangle and powerful legs, is made love to by a bison.

A modern indigenous painter is asked, Why do you paint? He replies that he does not paint. Rather, the spirit paints, and his listening arm moves, brushes, allowing deep spirit to form.

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