Saw a brilliant documentary today on the Chauvet Caves in France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Discovered in 1994, these are over 32,000 years old and in pristine condition, as fresh as though they were drawn yesterday. They are the oldest known paintings in the world! And all that history lay undisturbed for so long. I was reminded of the time the youngling picked up burnt charcoal pieces from the ashes of the holi fire and sat down to sketch as a 10 year old. The need to create is a primal one, even the Gods are not spared according to myth.
The cave paintings are beautiful, firm of hand, steady, sure. The subject matter is mostly animal life, fauna that would have abounded in the region in that period. I wonder where did they practise to have such steadiness? Proportion, light and shadow, perspective, contours, motion – that takes keen observation, practice. Where did they hone their skill? The pictures are incredibly beautiful. How old or young were the artists? Did they learn from someone or was it spontaneous? What were the thoughts that led to the creation? Did they have a concept of a future far ahead? Did they/he/she think of it as something to be left behind? How did they experience the seeing and the recall of the animals that came to be sketched on the wall with charcoal and red ochre? How would it have been to create in that space? Would the dark and silence have heightened their senses? There are more questions than there can be answers.
Language is beautiful, powerful and elaborate. Yet when it comes to sheer awe, perhaps aural and visual art score a little more. Their eloquence is in their capacity to reach the senses where the immediate responses are less cerebral. Words seem extraneous to the experience of that state of being. And I wonder, what other art did those people indulge in? Did the artist/artists make music, hum in languages we will never know as they painted in those dark spaces? How much time did they spend looking at the walls before the images emerged? How much time did it take to complete? Did they identify themselves as creators of the art in some fashion?
And it makes me question what would our art tell someone 32,000 years from now? Would it inspire the same awe? Would there be a coherence like the ones these paintings seem to exude? In 2020, we are a Babel of art, leaping over a multiplicity of themes, crisscrossing boundaries.
The documentary has men and women from different disciplines, trained in the ways of science but they too sense something beyond the realm of pure science, something at a more primal level. Julien Monney, one of the team present during the movie talks about “A feeling of powerful things, deep things. A way to understand things which is not a direct way.” Clottes speaks about fluidity and permeability and brings in the ideas of transformation, transmigration and the communion between the spirit and the material world. Did those anonymous artists use art as an end or as a means?
There’s the recollection of an Aborigine’s point of view that comes towards the end. The man touches up a decaying painting and a western archaeologist asks him why is he painting over it? And he tells him that he is not painting. It is the hand spirit who is actually painting. And that thought there feels like an echo of what I experience when I write whatever I write. A sense that the words come through me but are not of me.
There are a couple of disjointed scenes like the random introduction of a perfumer and crocodiles which don’t add anything much. It almost feels like the trick question in class that a teacher poses just to see who is paying attention. Post the movie, I spent some time looking at the stunning images. You can find them here
And couldn’t resist a few lines…
When the ice melts, who
hears its silence as it swells
in a water drop?