Sunday, November 14, 2010

I don't know anything about art but…

When I was in high school, the Social Studies teacher offered a course called Civilisation. It followed the British TV series and used the companion textbook. We got a smattering of Vikings, Dark Ages, Renaissance…and I loved it.

When I made my solo jaunt to Europe a few years later in 1981, I visited Stone-Age sites, Iron-Age monuments, the British Museum…and discovered prehistory. I was fascinated.

Twenty-eight years after that, the eminent French archaeologist Jean Clottes gave a series of lectures in my hometown. I wrote about them briefly on this blog last September when I was still overwhelmed by the trove of information he’d shared.

Two weeks ago, I was once again overwhelmed. In fact (don’t spread this around) I cried. Nobody noticed, because it was dark, and also because they were all looking at the end of the beam of light from the guide’s lamp, which was shining on two mammoths someone had carved into the walls of Rouffignac Cave 17,000 years ago.

Freaking mammoths. God, they’re beautiful.

They’re also important.

The thing about prehistory is that, as far as we knew, people had no recorded language (although recent work by University of Victoria grad student Genevieve von Petzinger is challenging that). But still, we have to piece together the stories one clue at a time.

People created images such as those mammoths at Rouffignac and the aurochs at nearby Lascaux and the experts apply their knowledge, such as it is, and then extrapolate. There’s lots of room for assumption, cultural projection, personal agendas and egos.

When I visited the British Museum back in 1981, I bought a book called The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser in which Dr. Hauser states: “In [the prehistoric] age of purely practical life everything obviously still turned around the bare earning of a livelihood and there is nothing to justify us in assuming that art served any other purpose than a means to procuring food.”

Fifty years after Hauser’s work, the archaeological world has changed its tune a little. Decades of study of many more sites using both old and new technologies have led Dr Clottes and others to conclude that the carvings and paintings so deep in the limestone caverns at Rouffignac, Lascaux, Chauvet and elsewhere were indeed a spiritual act.

Why else go so far underground, climbing rock chimneys and crawling through passages to reach sites where no-one else could see their work?

According to Clottes, the artists from these hunter-gatherer societies thought the caves were the world of the spirits and the deeper they went, the more they could access the supernatural.

As I moved into the caverns myself, it was easy to imagine people 15- and 40,000 years ago inching along the tunnels that fold and wind like the vessels that carry blood through our muscles, air to our lungs, children into the world.

How different that is from the mindset of the agricultural age, when men built upward, toward the sun. Notre-Dame Cathedral, Sacre-Coeur all white on its hill, the glass curtains of Sainte-Chapelle, all push toward the sky to thank or praise or plead to a god.

Either way, whether they’re painting a horse a kilometer underground or carving a chunk of stone for the façade of a church they’ll never see complete, people bring their best to art.

For that, I thank them.


  1. Your articles bring back happy memories of art school and France.
    Thank you.


  2. You're welcome, Marjorie.

    Art school sounds so glamorous. I have this image of students clustered in a big, north-facing, paint-spattered room, squinting at canvases on easels and doing mysterious things with palettes.

    The reality is probably more like the medieval carver using his talent to chip the bishop's pet dog out of sandstone, or those prehistoric painters feeling their way in the dark .