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Dordogne Journal: Cave Paintings

After viewing the 17,000 year-old cave paintings in the Dordogne’s Grotte de Lascaux, Pablo Picasso is reported to have said, “We have invented nothing.”; “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.”

There are over two hundred caves with prehistoric paintings in France, mostly in the Dordogne Valley, and over one hundred in Spain. They date anywhere from 15,000 to 32,000 years ago. Unknown artists painted individual animals and groups of them: lions, bisons, reindeer, mammoths, bears, hyenas, aurochs, and creatures that seem to have been imagined. Occasionally the images seek to show the animals in motion. In addition to having a command of perspective, the artists also used the natural contours of cave walls to give depth and volume to their depictions.

Some of the paintings lie over a mile into deep limestone caves, as if the artists were seeking quiet, or fleeing the regard of others. Why did they paint? For religious reasons? To bring luck to the hunt? Or simply because they shared with us a human appreciation for beauty and a desire to create art?


Font-de-Gaume_entree.JPGThe bison above was painted on the wall of the Font-de-Gaume cave (right), located outside Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. Dated to 17,000 BC, Font-de-Gaume is one of the only polychrome painting sites that the public may still visit. The most famous paintings created with multiple materials are at Lascaux, but that cave is now closed to the public.

To stand at arm’s length from the work of an artist who painted by torchlight almost twenty millennia ago is a moving, humbling experience. Say what you want about the Cro-Magnons, but they weren’t just a bunch of neanderthals.


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