Saturday, June 2, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Art Galleries

Some of you have noticed that the blog has been pretty quiet lately, apart from a contest or two (though we've got another one coming up!).  We've been busy with writing, reading, meeting deadlines, and having bouts of the flu.  We also enjoyed a long visit from friends, with whom we went on a mini-vacation. Yes!  Because sometimes, when you're living in Paris and getting spoiled by the good life, you start fantasizing about taking vacations to other awesome places. 

     "I want to go on vacation somewhere they've got lush green river valleys with roughly a thousand little castles perched on the cliffs."
     "I want to go to a major wine region where they cook everything in duck fat."
column to write about, Souillac
     "I want to go someplace that Henri II and Eleanor of Aquitaine squabbled over."
     "I want to go someplace where you can drive an hour to a little village that's got a church that's got a carved stone column that I'm thinking of writing an article about sometime," says Le Prof.
     La Potiche says, "I think we can manage that." For in southwest central France, in Aquitaine, in the départements of Dordogne and Lot-et-Garonne, you can find all of these things and more!  Including...the largest museum of automates in Europe!  We don't stop till we get enough!

It was such a perfect vacation wonderland that it hardly even mattered that it rained every day but one, that our river cruise was impossible because the Dordogne was in flood and had washed out the docks, and that our 4-hour trip from Paris turned into a 7-hour trip because, with no warning whatsoever, the entire regional train line got shut down and we were stuck on a local bus instead.  We loved it; THAT is how perfect the Dordogne is.  There are forests, poppy-strewn fields, hilltop fortresses, little restaurants on the rivers, and so many medieval villages that they don't even bother to put them on the heritage trail maps.  On our one sunny day, we headed out to Lot, where, unbeknownst to us, you can spend two hours driving up and down the sides of ravines stretching from one end of the horizon to the other, on dizzying little cliff-side roads, through rock tunnels and swooping up over the peaks and down into the river valleys, deafening yourselves the whole way with screams of wonder over how gorgeous, how astonishing, how unbelievably spectacular the countryside is and WHOA!  that was a hairpin turn!  I'd like to include a special word of appreciation for Prof. D's masterly handling of our stickshift rental car, which he drove up, down, and around incredible terrains unmarred by a single warning sign, with nary an accident.  We saw a single guardrail--smashed off the side of a cliff, where a car had plowed into it.

But the real reason we went to the Dordogne was articulated by Prof. H:  a lifelong, burning desire in her heart to gaze upon 25,000-year-old cave paintings of woolly mammoths and spotty horses, a desire that was much newer, but no less compelling, for Le Prof and La Potiche.  Sometime in spring 2011, Le Prof and La Potiche went to see Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet Cave in southern France. 

La Potiche, who is an innocent, had no suspicions that a desire to look at cave paintings could be kindled in her, or that it was already a-burning in Le Prof; all she wanted was to wear 3-D glasses and work on her Herzog impression, which becomes more uncannily lifelike with each iteration.  But then she saw the movie, which is not perfect by any stretch, but which does give the audience the gift of seeing Chauvet at all.  La Potiche sat there with her 3-D glasses perched over her everyday glasses and her mouth stuffed full of popcorn she felt too breathless to chew and stretched her tiny hands toward the bulging, glistening, painted rocks--they were so close, yet so far away!  The movie was a tease, a taunt, a provocation!  She would never see Chauvet Cave in person, because Chauvet is closed to the public; it's even closed to scientists, except for a few days of intensive study each year.  La Potiche felt a hole shaped like a prehistoric rhino-like megafauna in her heart.

What La Potiche did not know then, and wouldn't learn till after she and Le Prof had decided not to go see the Great Barrier Reef or the Guangxi paddies which will probably also disappear in the next hundred years, but to go to France instead, was that southern France is chock-full of prehistoric sites that are still open to the public.  There are at least a hundred, perhaps hundreds, and most of them aren't even mentioned in your guidebook.  Some of them are run by prehistoric men who hang handwritten signs up on the side of the road with their cell phone numbers, telling you when they're available for a prehistoric rendez-vous.  Some of them allow only 95 visitors a day and are booked weeks in advance.  Some of them are totally deserted, at the end of winding one-lane mountain roads, and when you go inside they have you board a little train--a train!--with a French family, and they take you for a train ride down into the cavern to see the paintings.  Is there anything more awesome than a little train that whisks you down a two-kilometer-long hole to see a rock ceiling decorated with more than sixty paintings of prehistoric animals?  NO.  THERE ISN'T.  IT IS THE COOLEST THING IN THE WORLD.  Except, perhaps, for the sunset-colored glittering stalactites at Pech-Merle with freaking SPOTTY HORSES and NEGATIVE HANDS all over the place!!!!!!!!  LES MAINS NEGATIFS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You are totally not allowed to take pictures in the caves, so we have no pictures of our own to share.  You should look for online pictures of Pech-Merle and Grotte de Rouffignac, which we saw, or just watch the Herzog movie for a closer idea of the actual experience.  You can't touch anything.  And you feel guilty if you cough or breathe too much or stand there with your mouth open in astonishment, because every visitor brings in body heat and mold and mildew and germs and things that can destroy the caves.  The caves are monitored with all sorts of temperature and humidity and air quality equipment, and if the scientists ever discover that the art is being damaged, they will shut up the caves entirely, and no visitors will ever be allowed in again.  But in the meantime, if you are lucky enough to see them, and walk around seeing the graceful, gorgeous paintings and etchings and sculptures popping out of the darkness, you feel a great bursting feeling of wonder that's kind of like the feeling you get in the Orangerie in the Les Nymphéas rooms, but maybe more like the feeling when Gandalf illuminated his staff in the Mines of Moria, Laaa, la-la-la-la La Laaaa! and you were, err, 27 again and wondering why you had to be born in this stupid time and place and not in, like, the time of Dáin, King Under the Mountain.
Grotte du Roc de Cazelle:  no cave paintings.  Lots of mannequins.  Pictures totally allowed.

One of the things I enjoyed about the tours at the five prehistoric sites we visited was the resistance to explaining the art.  The guides told us that some scholars believe the art has ritual/religious purposes, or pedagogical purposes, or whatever, but that there is insufficient evidence to decide which, if any, of these interpretations are correct.  I like this resistance to jumping to conclusions, especially because those conclusions are generally utilitarian, unitary, and reductive.  Why not suppose that the art was made as art, for the millions of reasons, of which ritual and pedagogy are only two, why artists make art?  (Which is, by the way, my objection to the Herzog film:  his insistence on the paintings as the passive replication of a "dream"--which is why some people make art, but sure as hell not all of them.)  Just because a cave contains buffalo paintings but no signs of domestic life doesn't mean the cave must have been a holy site:  there are lots of places besides holy sites where we don't cook supper, wash our hair, or dump our bedding; for example, art galleries.

Till the scholars figure out a grand unifying theory that explains why prehistoric people made their art, I'm happy to think of the caves as galleries, museums, and theaters, where people could enjoy the art, coming to it with as many feelings and motives as the artists themselves had in making it.  This is not to say that ritual and education aren't multi-faceted too, but to me, the important thing is to foreground what we do know about these works, which is that they are ART, and to think of prehistoric art the way we think about other arts.  Your cave painter paints that row of horses to express herself (whatever that means), or show off what he can do, or to enjoy having a secret, or to share a secret, or to crawl on her hands and knees up a 200-meter tunnel to dabble on the wall because that's what kids do when they've got time on their hands.  Or to prove to himself that he can do it.  Or to satisfy some inner longing that she can only express with a rash of red dots on the wall.  Or because it's a job, and there are cavelings to feed.  Or because there's a satisfaction in touching clay and fat and water, or a satisfaction in looking at lions and horses and bison.  And the crowds come with their torches to look at the paintings, to feel spiritual, to learn what a mating bison looks like, to be entertained and to admire.  Or, to be part of the supportive crowd at a friend's opening, or to heckle.  Or to learn something about technique before they crawl up into their own holes.  Or because their tour group has two hours to fill before they hit the Hard Rock Cafe.  Or because they have a blog post to write.

Check here for pics!


  1. What a lush, exciting post! A thousand hoorahs echoing off the cave walls for this writing. I've bounced between Hauser's take (power) and Bataille (memory, sort of) and now Herzog's marvelous vision. But I like your idea of being in waiting for the raison d'être of these images, these first strange objects that are at least two things at once. I also rely on the idea of the Kunstwollen - i translate it as "the will to art" for my students, but it probably bears more thinking through. Prehistoric France is an entire world unto itself, somehow mostly off the Monuments Historiques map - neolithic megaliths litter the landscape of Brittany with only Carnac being controlled. Swell - more for our romps! Thank you for this essay.

  2. Thanks very much, Anne! I will have a long talk with Le Prof about "Kunstwollen" to get on the same page! He tells me that your stay in Brittany was lovely. We're going to Carnac, but are disappointed that not having a car will prevent us from seeing any of the other sites. Any tips for Carnac?