Thursday, November 05, 2009

Where there is Man there is art, and where there is art there is graffiti

The Vézère Valley in the Dordogne region of France is littered with limestone caves, 25 of which are decorated with paintings estimated to be up to 20,000 years old, the earliest known example of painting.  The most famous of these is the Lascaux complex of caves, discovered in 1940 by some boys looking for their dog (actually, it was discovered by the dog himself, Robot, who had fallen in).  Comprising nearly 2,000 figures, primarily of horses but also of stags, bison, and aurochs (ancestors of modern cattle), it has been dubbed "the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory" and includes the famous Painted Gallery and the Great Hall of the Bulls.

The only other polychromatic paintings discovered in the valley are in the Font-de-Gaume cave, depicting bison and horses again but also mammoths and, the principle food source of the time, reindeer.  The best known images from this cave are a frieze of five bison and "the sexual parade of the reindeer," where a stag is smelling the head of a kneeling doe.  The natural contours of the cave walls were exploited to emphasise the hump of a bison or the belly of a horse.  (Photography is disallowed, so here's a picture from a government website.)  Sadly, yet again this is artwork defaced by graffiti, this time from the 19th century, where bison paintings at the fore of the cave have had names carved into them.  It's difficult to excuse, but it has to be said that the paintings had not been scientifically observed at the time and there was no comprehension of their age or significance.

Another site, Grotte de Rouffignac, is sometimes called "the cave of a hundred mammoths."  An electric train takes visitors into a ten-kilometre deep complex of painted mammoths, horses, ibex, and even rhinoceros.  I hugely regret that I missed this.  On 30 October, I set out late to see both Font-de-Gaume and Rouffignac, but had to wait for over an hour at Font-de-Gaume because they limit the size of the tours.  This is understandable; when Lascaux was discovered there was no such limitation, and the change in air quality from 1,200 visitors a day caused the development of a green fungus, la malaise vert, and a white calcite crystal, la malaise blanc, to damage the paintings.  This in turn led Lascaux to first limit numbers of visitors, and then to close permanently in 1963.  Indeed, there is suggestion that this may happen with Font-de-Gaume; the tour guide showed us an example of a white fungus growing on the wall.  The only way to appreciate Lascaux today is to visit "Lascaux II," an impressive centimetre by centimetre three-dimensional reproduction of the cave built into the hillside beside the original, with the paintings exactly reproduced using the same pigmentation and techniques.  Of course, knowing it is a facsimile unavoidably detracts from the awe, and the experience becomes a slightly carnivalesque appreciation of the facsimile itself.  Nevertheless, it is sympathetically and tastefully executed.  But with the delay at Font-de-Gaume and the closing for the season of Grotte de Rouffignac on 01 November, it was too late to return another day.

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