We watched a 2010 film by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche, France, where the oldest known paintings were discovered in 1994 by cavers looking for new spaces to explore.
We had been talking about the myth of the first drawing, in which the daughter of Boutades, a potter, takes a lump of charcoal from the fire and draws on the wall the outline of the shadow of her lover, soon to depart, perhaps for ever. The story encapsulates the idea of a drawing fixing a moment in time, fixing someone or something that is no longer there, being about loss and desire. And from a formal point of view, it’s about line and figure & ground.
With this is mind, we watched as the film camera took us along the river, up into the cave and into the halls with drawings. The drawings are over 30,000 years old and had been protected and preserved because a landslide and rockfall had closed the original cave entrance. One of the archaeologists on the team investigating the cave described the ’emotional shock of the drawings’ when he first went into the cave. I felt something like that when the drawings first appeared on screen.
The archaeologists in the film talked about how much we don’t understand and can’t know about life and culture for Cro-Magnon man when they made the paintings. Herzog ended the film with a postscript about a theme park near the site of the cave, which had imported crocodiles to live in its tropical environment and now found that they were thriving and mutating – an unintended consequence and an illustration of how little we know about our world and our impact on it even now.
But my strongest feeling is one of connection with the people entering a dark cave, standing in the pools of light cast by their torches, to draw with charcoal on the white walls. The film talks of them
communicating with the future.
We may get only glimpses of what they were thinking but is that any different from any of us today?