I recently visited the Lascaux caves which are about a three hour drive from where I’m living now. I’d heard of them but I hadn’t realised they were as close as this.
You’ll see from that photo above, which isn’t mine, that the incredible wall art in the caves was deteriorating quickly due to the effects of fungi and carbon dioxide brought in by visiting tourists, so the government closed the caves to preserve them and did something astonishing.
They built an exact replica of part of the cave network, faithful down to 5mm, using teams of artists to recreate the artwork using the same kinds of pigments used by the original artists on artificial cave walls.
The caves were discovered in 1940 when a group of boys were exploring a forest. A storm had blown down some trees and one of the fallen trees had opened up a hole in the ground under its roots. Their dog disappeared down the hole so they went after it, quickly realising it was a tunnel into caves. After retrieving their dog, they went back home and got lamps, returning to squeeze along the dark tunnel until it opened up into a cave. Can you imagine how astonished they were when the light from their flames lit up the huge paintings of bulls, bison, cows, horses and deer which covered the walls and ceiling of the cave?
There was a lot more down there than what the boys found in the first cave. The paintings are thought to have been created up to 18,000 years ago and had remained, perfectly preserved, once the cave network was sealed off by the forest.
Lots of questions immediately spring to mind – how did they manage to paint such life-like depictions of animals under the ground in the darkness using just small lamps for light? They covered not only the walls but the ceilings. How did they get up there? They used the contours of the cave walls to make their paintings seem three dimensional. How did they have the imagination and the skill to do that? And WHY? Why did they put so much time and effort into the creation of this fabulous art?
It didn’t take long before the effects of thousands of visitors started to degrade the art work so the government sealed it off and created Lascaux 2, a replica. If you click through on that link you’ll go to an interactive tour of the re-creation.
So, I went down the stone steps with a couple of dozen other visitors and a guide. In the ante-room after the great doors were pulled closed, our eyes adjusted to the low level of light and the guide talked us through the story of the discovery of the Lascaux caves and the creation of Lascaux 2. Then he opened the far doors and we all squeezed down a narrow passageway between rough walls of rock. The passageway opened up into the Hall of the Bulls, so called because of the four, almost life size paintings of bulls which completely cover the ceiling of the cave.
He switched off the lights and lit a cigarette lighter. As the small, single flame cast its faint light up onto the walls and ceiling you could swear the animals were moving. It was quite cold down there and without artificial light it would be pitch dark.
We spend the best part of an hour exploring the cave and hearing about the different paintings.
So, you’re thinking. You just visited a replica? How did that feel?
You know what? It was magical. I thought it might be a bit Disney-like, but it wasn’t. You know what it was like? It was like standing in the middle of an art installation. That’s exactly what the replica is. It’s a work of art designed to communicate to you something of the experience of the artists. And that’s what this replica represents, isn’t it? A work of art. Created by unknown artists almost 18,000 years ago….
So there it is…one work of art, touching the viewer, stirring some kind of feelings which the artists had after they’d been inspired in a similar way by other artists, long gone, who left these astonishing creations.
Here’s my final thought. Isn’t it just wonderful that we humans create art? Not for a sum of money, fame, or some utility, but to…..what? Interpret our world? Interact with our world? Make sense of our world? Express ourselves, just because we can?