Art Before History Part 2

Paintings in the cave at Lascaux, France, 15 000- 13 000 BCE

Cave paintings were also very popular during the Paleolithic period. Perhaps the most well-known cave painting is that at Lascaux, France. The paintings are created deep inside the cave, where there is barely any light. There are several series of paintings created. Scholars believe that these different series have been created at different times but different artists. In today’s post, I will discuss two sets of paintings in the cave: the “Hall of Bulls” and the painting exhibiting one of the first humans.


Hall of Bulls

This set of painting is iconic. It is what many people picture when the paintings of Lascaux come to mind. Despite the name, the animals depicted are not just bulls. The “herd” includes various species of various sizes moving in different directions. The two of the most basic approaches to painting are employed in this piece: silhouette painting and outlining. The use of these two techniques lead scholars to believe that the individual paintings in this set were created by different artists at different times. One important feature of this painting is the use of composite view (aka. twisted perspective). This shows that the painter’s approach is descriptive rather than purely optical. The painter was trying to paint the whole concept of a bull, not just what meets the eye from a certain angle.


Rhinoceros, Man, and Bison

This painting is important to be noted because it is one of the first times that humans have ever painted men. The painting shows a rhinoceros at the left, a man (as opposed to a woman), and a bison. The bowels of the bison are seen beneath it. There is also a spear and what scholars believe is a staff with a bird on top beneath the man. However the story is unclear. Scholars have no way of knowing with certainty what the artist intended to convey. This piques my curiosity. Why is the man laying down? Is he dead or wounded? Or is he simply resting? Are the staff and spear below him his possessions? Who injured the bison? The man, the rhino, or neither? Regardless of the content, if the artist did intend to tell a story, then the creation of relatively complex narratives occurred much earlier than people could have ever imagined.

As I think about these paintings, I am amazed by the complexities of the painting techniques and content matter used by artists of the Paleolithic period. However it’s important to remember that very few people would have seen these paintings for they were deep inside the cave and could only have been visible when there was some source of flickering light. In the words of one well-known art historian, “Like all Paleolithic art, the scene in the Lascaux well shaft remains enigmatic.”

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