Sunday, March 11, 2012

Art ruminations: Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS

Above, my monochrome drawing isolating one horse's head from a herd of four as depicted in Chauvet Cave, France. Below left, my monochrome drawing of a typical horse at Lascaux Cave, France for comparison.

Cinema's most skilled director of insanely driven protagonists and its documentarian of some of humanity's weirdest outsiders, Werner Herzog somehow made his most universal study yet in 2010. His "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams" explores the birthplace of all humanity's Art, Chauvet Cave in southern France (about halfway betwixt Avignon and Marseilles.) Encompassing Animalier Fine Art, zoology, history and paleoanthropology, of course I adored it.

Chauvet lion pride hunting aurochs, rhinos and wisent bison

The interior murals have been verified by carbon
dating its charcoal medium at 30,000 years old, far
older than Lascaux's.
Discovered as late as 1994 by three French spelunkers, Chauvet Cave's astonishing excess of riches in Ice Age art remain in pristine preservation due to A) an ancient landslide which blocked off the only entrance with an entire mountain coming down on it and B) it allows extremely limited access to scientists but remains thankfully closed to the public (Lascaux,
which allowed over 1,000 visitors a day has
succumbed to lichens and mold starting to
destroy its cave paintings.)

Chauvet rhino bellowing as it gallops

To make this film the director cajoled one
week of 4-hour production days from the French government, bringing a 4-person skeleton crew with collapsible 3-D movie cameras invented for the shoot, since the space is cramped. (The resultant film is available for purchase, rental or streaming in regular digital, for those of us without the latest toys.)

Herzog's narration brings his own keen art
sense of observation
to the table. He shows how
these cave artists surpassed anthropology's acceptance of mere totemistic hunting portrayals with such realistic attention to details of the animals, indicating pride of artistic achievement as well as wishful thinking for the tribal hunts.
Chauvet's 32,000 BC drawings are rendered far more skillfully with shading/modeling than those of the 13,700 BC Lascaux artists (see my comparison studies of same at top,) which more resemble a talented child's efforts posted on the family refrigerator.

Furthermore, since expert art historians identify the fabrication of a single hand at work here and there amongst all the cave's myriad fauna presention, Herzog rightly implies the singular artist herein should be considered the Michaelangelo of Paleolithic art. This artist's horses even snort with well-defined lips and nostrils!

In general, the Chauvet artists used economy
of outline as would Japanese and Chinese master artists tens of thousands of years later. A bear (my study above) shows a 3/4 profile angle unlike the far-easier-to-render profiles of all the world's primitive art. Poignantly as well as unusually for a depiction of a future meal, one wisent bison is turning its face to look directly forward at the humans or lions threatening it, such 2-D frontal perspective absent even throughout future landmarks of representational art in
Pharaonic Egypt.

My own artist's ruminations:
--most are drawn by right-handed artists. For some reason we're all inclined to face subjects from the right profile looking left unless one makes a special effort not to.
--outstanding observation afoot of natural life. This scientific LINK  delineates Chauvet's lion behavior as accurately portrayed; i.e., snarling subordinate lion with ears pressed back hunkered down next to taller, dominant hunting male.
--abject realism: so many of the animals are depicted calling out (see rhino) in their distress if prey or excitement if predator.
--the modeling/shading really does have this much detail if you draw it yourself as I (artist's trick to understand another's style.)
as for the depiction of a bull-headed humanoid about to, euphemism, "mess with" a schematic human female representation, I offer an artist's simple explanation for any human/animal mash-up in art, regardless of mythology/religiously inclined tenets. An artist carved a lion's head on a man's body (as with a similar Paleolithic German example) to convey "I feel as strong as a lion!" This artist proclaims the virility of a bull.

Lastly, I felt far less ingenuous about my own commercially useless talent for drawing animals after seeing this film: it turned out to be wired in our ancestors' brains to incubate all artistic expression!

Bestiary of Chauvet Cave animals: European wisent bison, (extinct red cave) bears, (extinct mane-less) European lions, aurochs (extinct giant cattle, progenitors of modern cattle. Imagine a long-legged bull the size of a moose,) (extinct Tarpan) horses,(extinct Irish Elk with a hump like an eland and 12 ft. antlers) Megaloceros, (extinct European) rhinoceroses, spotted hyenas; (extinct) Wooly mammoths; and one wayward horned owl.

Visual bestiary of recently extinct animals depicted in Chauvet Cave: above right, auroch (extinct 1627) as used in gymnastics by the Minoan civilization, this sport persisting today for equestrians, called Vaulting.

Below left, 1884 photo of a (very groomed) Tarpan horse (extinct 1918;) below right, selective breeding reconstruction of Tarpan horse from Polish Konik ponies and other primitive-type equines.

Worth it!
sample review snippet:
"If you're a member
of the human race then
you owe it to yourself
to see this movie..."

A $65 million facsimile of the Chavet Caves and its paintings has been built and opened for tourists nearby. This saves the original forever from the damage even inadvertantly caused by human proximity to these fragile painted murals. Seeing this is now on the bucket list for Mr. Twister and me!  Click LINK   



Evanesco said...

Oh, a must see! I will live vicariously through film and see how cool these have survived so long. You make me want to sketch again :)

Fast Film said...


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