Houston Museum of Natural Science: More than Grafitti

Houston Museum of Natural Science explores spiritual roots of prehistoric art.

“It’s often said, ‘It’s because they became homo sapiens sapiens that they started to create art,’ but I tend to think…that it is through art that they became humans, and … through their creations, they invented us.”    — Jean-Claude Joiree, Philosopher

Eighteen thousand years ago, early modern humans entered a cave complex in Dordogne, France, and created what has been christened the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory.”

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is exhibiting “Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” through March 23.

The “Axial Gallery Overview

Lascaux, a World Heritage site, is exceptional in a number of ways. It is much larger than most other painted caves in France and Spain, approximately 3,000 square meters consisting of one large room, two galleries and a downward vertical shaft. The depth of the cave varies from six to 20 meters. Also, the artifacts are so well preserved. Protection was initiated when the entrance collapsed at the end of the last glacial period. Additionally, a thick coating of calcite crystals in the main room, on which most of the images there were painted, turned out to be an excellent substrate for preservation, and its high reflectivity would appeal to any artist. This site, which was added to by multiple successive generations, has lasted thousands of years without decaying or fading. In these magnificent frescoes, Lascaux artists revealed a shift toward the aesthetic spirit, the modernity of prehistoric man.

Created by The General Council of Dordogne, this worldwide exhibit offers a virtual tour of the entire Lascaux cave thanks to cutting-edge laser mapping and advanced 3D modeling technology. Multimedia presentations and interactive stations reveal the paintings’ complexities and provide insight into the talent required to create them.

The exhibit hall is dark and hushed, evoking the feeling of entering an actual cave. Low, flickering lights throughout the exhibit capture the ambience of the cave while the artists were at work. At the entrance, discreetly lighted panels describe the discovery of the cave by four boys and their dog on Sept. 12, 1940, in a country devastated by defeat, and the following excitement as pre-historians, paleontologists and archeologists from around the world realized the monumentality of this find.

From 1948 to 1963, daily tours of the cave attracted thousands of visitors each year.

One famous tourist, Pablo Picasso, is said to have remarked in awed humility after seeing the paintings, “We [contemporary artists] have learned nothing.”

The walls of the first and main room of Lascaux, “The Hall of the Bulls,” are entirely decorated. In the first series of images, an animal dubbed the Unicorn is joined by a large bull and horses placed just above eye level. These figures are highly reflective and portrayed in yellows, bright reds and black. The Unicorn is mysterious and unique, being the only depiction of an imaginary animal in the entire complex, and the first animal encountered.

The parade continues as the calcite formation moves up onto the high round vault. Imposing masses of bulls seem to pull a succession of black and brown horses, aurochs, bison, and a herd of red deer. Analysis proves that this hall was the result of a collective creative effort, evidenced by the preparation of paints and scrapers, installation of scaffolding, and an elaborate lighting system consisting of 100 portable lamps found at ground level and on ledges.

In one of the most impressive aspects of the exhibit, the 10-meter long “Great Black Cow” panel is presented in a small theater as a projection on the wall which constructs and deconstructs the painting, complete with audio commentary, uncovering engravings, hidden animals, and symbols. It reveals how the Lascaux artists began by engraving a shape, adding color and other elements, and even reworked the images. It also describes how the artists took advantage of the cave’s natural relief to create perspective and indicate movement.

a detail from “The Hall of the Bull,”

An intriguing aspect of this presentation revealed large polychrome quadrangles painted beneath the animals’ feet. These squarish “coats of arms” are divided into almost symmetrical grids, each cell a different color, and are found in only one other known site. As these images do not represent anything found in the natural world, and also include exceptional mauve shades not used in the animal paintings, it is assumed that they had symbolic meaning to the artists or societies, but their actual interpretation remains a mystery.

The numerous abstract signs encountered in Lascaux include long rows of dots, star-shapes, plant-like sheaves, crosses, hooks and curved brackets, placed both on and around the animal figures.

One of the many wonderful features of this exhibit is a life-sized reconstructed cave through which one can walk and get the feel of actually visiting Lascaux. (The site has been closed to the public since 1963, as carbon dioxide from the breath of human visitors instigated mold-growth which began deteriorating the paintings.) This cave also features an amazingly life-like stone-age family, created by world-renowned sculptor Elisabeth Daynès. An old man, an adolescent girl, a woman, and a child are dressed in clothing and ornaments made of materials available 200 centuries ago. These people, formerly referred to as Cro-Magnon, were not the “cave men” of popular imagery. They were sophisticated hunters and gatherers who lived in a structured society with a culture much more refined than most of us imagine.

Passing through this cave, one is struck not only by the massive size and depth of the images, but also that these animals are not just randomly placed, but depict stories and movement not just on the walls, but across the ceilings, as well. Artists created perspective with unpainted sections, for instance above the far legs of animals, suggesting distance. Entangled and overlapping figures bring the realization that everything is part of an intentional composition.

The artwork is complex, with a confidence of line, an emotive use of color, and a manipulation of form that vividly depicts movement. The artists were certainly predators, evidenced in their intimate portrayal of the animals.

According to Jean Clottes, a prominent French pre-historian, in his “Passion Préhistoire” (2003), “ This profusion of painting is even more striking in that the animals portrayed are unusually large and that [the artists] made extraordinary use of the possibilities of color and techniques. … The spectacular effects were deliberate. The result is a carefully presented bestiary, dominated by horses, aurochs, red deer and bison. They seem to live on the walls, these animals that run, jump and tumble over backwards. It is an art of life, for spectators.”

One outstanding example of animals in movement is the “Frieze of the Swimming Red Deer.” Seams of different colored limestone were used to compose this scene, the five deers’ noses aimed upwards as they struggle to keep their heads afloat, the bulk of their bodies hidden beneath the surface of the water suggested by the rock ledge.

Interestingly, only a single human figure is depicted throughout this huge complex. It also happens to occur in one of the very few scenes indicating violence. “The Shaft Scene” includes a rhinoceros turning its back on a human form opposite an eviscerated bison. Described in “Lascaux ou la naissance de l’art,” by Georges Bataille, “The bison is literally bristling with rage, its tail raised and its entrails pouring out in heavy curves between its limbs.” The man, by contrast, is essentially a stick figure rendered only in simple black lines, lying prone, apparently dead or dying, and certainly with none of the detail afforded the animals.

“Red Deer and Geometric Signs

Along with the paintings, this exhibit includes artifacts found in the cave. Among these were natural pigment cakes of ochre, manganese (black) and clays in warm earth colors, palettes, hollowed-out limestone bowls for mixing pigments or, filled with animal fat used as lamps, a pink sandstone lamp with a handle decorated with engravings, brushes made of plant or hair to apply and blend liquid paint, flint scrapers and chisels for engraving, even remnants of ladders required to attain the higher reaches of the walls and ceilings.

One technique used at Lascaux was spraying, particularly well suited to the irregular cave surfaces. Pigment was ground to a powder and blown on the wall, sometimes dry but primarily in liquid form since no residue was found at most of the wall bases. There is also evidence of stencils being utilized to obtain clean edges or define fields of color more clearly. This method is noted particularly around the abstract signs, showing haloes of dispersed color that fell outside the edge of the stencil.

Despite 70 years of research and analysis, the meaning and purpose of the Lascaux cave paintings remain a mystery. Whatever the purpose of the paintings, they possess an undeniable beauty and power. Some believe they reflect visions seen by the artists when they were in a trance-like state. Others theorize the artwork is an account of past hunting successes or part of a ritual to improve future hunting. The most prevalent conclusion is that this cave presented an excellent, remote location for these people to gather, a cathedral in which to express the society’s values and beliefs, and to strengthen the spiritual connection between the people and the animals that nurtured both their bodies and their imaginations.

“Scenes from the Stone Age” invites us to contemplate these early masterpieces in their full splendor, and reflect on the creativity and humanity of our early ancestors.

For tickets, or more information, visit www.hmns.org or call 713-639-4629.

Tracy Danna
ISSUE Copy Editor