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Chauvet in Ardèche is proposed to become a UNESCO heritage site

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Chauvet cave is just another reason to love the Rhone-Alpes. As many times as I’ve explored this region by train, car, bike or hiking boots, I always like to leave a stone unturned. While my romance with Rhone-Alpes has been ongoing since 2003, Chauvet cave is a gem that I had yet to discover until recently. With much ado to Werner Herzog, now the public can see what scientists have been exploring since 1994 through the documnetary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

In a capricious moment of boredom on a rainy Saturday, I decided to go see the film in its English version at West End Cinema to experience the Chauvet cave “dans toute sa splendeur”. It was a bit unfortunate to see the film in 2D instead of 3D. I suppose the market for 3D documentaries is a too meager for Regal or AMC so I do not fault the tiny, local West End for not having the most advanced technology. Despite this minor downside, the film captivated me aesthetically and intellectually. Mirroring the cave itself, this film carries content as well as beauty. It is incredibly interesting for anyone interested in archaeology, art history or just the history of humankind.

I was impressed by the visuals the film offered with many shots of the cave playing with shadow and light over the art on the walls. The audience was put in the place of the first homo sapiens who experienced the cave by torch light and who used the wall surfaces to create movement. The layering of similar shapes, repeated shapes and shading by hand also reinforce movement and suggest that the drawings were a form of storytelling. The paleontological findings reinforce this hypothesis. No human remains were found in the cave so it is clear that this was not a living space. Animal remains, particularly bear bones, have been found and used to carbon date the cave. Interestingly, some of the bones were intentionally placed in new locations by humans many years later. One skull made its way onto an altar-like construction. The rock art and the bone arrangement indicate that the first homo sapiens had a sense of community and ritual surrounding the cave.

Archaeologist Jean Clottes points to this art as the dividing line between neanderthals and homo sapiens who lived side by side. He aptly points out that homo sapiens, or “thinking beings,” eclipsed their contemporaries by introducing a system of non-oral communication. Dating of the art also reinforces this theory as many elements are layered over one another, somethings spanning thousands of year apart. This evidence suggests that homo sapiens came into the cave over multiple generations and continued to use the space as a gallery. New generations created new art years after the initial artists had died. Did they do this consciously or unconsciously?

It is unclear whether the Chauvet art was made as a representation or whether it held spiritual significance. Did the artists consider the art as living? We today have no way of knowing for sure. But this raises an interesting point: can we appreciate art only as it relates to our own experiences? Do we read into it only what we wish to perceive? What is the role of our unconscous mind in both the creation and interpretation of art?

Herzog suggests that early homo sapiens were spiritual creatures that we today struggle to relate with. The conclusion of the film follows a logical sequence, suggesting that future generations may not be able to recognize or appreciate our belief systems. Personally, I felt the conclusion simplified the complexity of art as a means of inter-generational human communication. There is a place for art in the now but there is also value to art as an inheritance. While I will never know the initial intentions of the artists of Chauvet cave, this art still held significance for me. I stepped back, considered my ancestors, and felt a human connection to them. I would like to think that future generations will react similarly to our creations.

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  1. From Cave Wall to City Hall: A short history of light art | says

    […] graffiti artists, were also the first to use light in art, taking torches to light the way as they painted the depths of caves in Ardèche in what is now southern […]

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