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Cave Art Collage

Cave Art

Started: 40000 BCE
Ended: 10000 BCE
Cave Art Timeline
"Though a silent reminder of distant peoples or relic of a long-gone past, cave art continues to speak to us today and to draw our imagination about how we fit in a much grander world."
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Bruno David, Archaeologist
"It is indeed with the aim of bewitchment that Paleolithic man represented the animals that he went to hunt."
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Henri Bégouën, Historian
"Beyond Altamira, all is decadence."
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Pablo Picasso Signature
"Never did a sculptor enter there to carve and to chisel the image...which should lead us to think that Nature is endowed with gifts and with knowledge that its Creator gave it in order to know how to work in diverse way, in all sorts of materials."
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Pierre-Jean Fabre, French Doctor
"The caves that are decorated with paintings or with engravings demonstrate an impressive mastery of shapes and of techniques, that is to say the presence of true artists with a perfect grasp of their subject matter, are far too numerous to be a product of coincidence."
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Jean Clottes, Archaeologist

Summary of Cave Art

Cave Art (or Paleolithic Art) is a broad term for the earliest known art-making in human history. This movement is perhaps best-known today for the paintings found on the walls of many prehistoric caves, rich in depictions of animals, human figures, and forms that are a combination of man and beast. The tradition of cave art also includes relief carvings and portable sculptural objects. The art created by our earliest ancestors is at one level alien and deeply mysterious to us, and yet it serves as a reminder of the common humanity we share with its creators. It rarely fails to dazzle and astound with its meticulous detail, abstract gestures, and rich scope for imaginative speculation on its meaning and origin.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The art made during the Paleolithic era is the only document left to us by prehistoric people of their lives. For this reason, it is both vitally important and steeped in mystery, with no written records to accompany or explain it. Archaeologists, historians, and scholars have for centuries attempted to decode the motivations behind cave art, but all we can confidently assume is that these images and objects must have held great importance given the time dedicated to creating them, particularly given the nomadic lifestyles that held sway in this era.
  • Paleolithic art is found throughout the world and on every continent except Antarctica. However, the most researched and well-known examples have come from Europe. According to archaeologist Bruno David, the cave art of France and Spain "has reached especially great fame over the past century, capturing the imagination of the general public as well as attracting the attention of archaeologists. "
  • Paleolithic art was made with the limited materials that were available at the time. This includes natural pigments such as ochre and charcoal applied to cave walls by using plants or the artists' hands as brushes. Mixtures and powders would also have been blown onto walls through reed-like tubes or using the mouth, while portable objects were often carved out of animal tusks such as those of mammoths, using pieces of flint or rock.
  • There are key differences between the cave art traditions of different regions, suggestions different functions or influences for cave art dependent on geography. European images, for instance, rarely ever feature a human and almost always depict animals. The majority of human representations that are found on other continents, most notably in Africa and Australia.

Overview of Cave Art

Bulls are one of the many types of animals depicted in Lascaux Cave in France. The drawings at Lascaux are as old as 20,000 years.

Paleolithic art is a broad term used to describe the earliest known art making period in the history of human development, including cave paintings, relief carvings and sculptural objects. The artwork of this period is steeped in mystery. Theories around its creation range from ceremonial and religious concepts to mapping or educational uses.

Do Not Miss

  • Classicism refers to the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome - a highly dynamic period that is at the root of most art.
  • Art Brut, or in French "raw/rough art," was a label made by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art that was created by self-taught, naïve artists. Also known as Outsider Artists, these creators were often categorized as mentally unbalanced, and their aesthetics were mostly outside the common art world.
  • A vast number of major modern artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African, Oriental, Oceanic, and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
  • Street Art encompasses any visual art created in public locations, specifically unsanctioned artwork and graffiti.

Important Art and Artists of Cave Art

Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel (ca. 38,000 BC)

This impressive 12-inch composite creature, carved from the ivory of a mammoth, fuses animal and human elements. Its beastly attributes include a lion's head and the elongated body and forelimbs of a big cat, while the legs, feet and bi-pedal stance are clearly modeled on the human form.

An important prehistoric work, the sculpture was discovered in Germany in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in 1939 and is the oldest example of an imaginary form in history. The fact the work is a composite creature emanating from the artist's mind disproves any notion that the earliest humans were unintelligent or unimaginative, while the time involved in its creation also suggests a capacity for sustained and concentrated thought. According to author Jill Cook, "an experiment by Wulf Hein using the same sort of stone tools available in the Ice Age indicate that the Lion Man took more than 400 hours to make... This was a lot of time for a small community living in difficult conditions to invest in a sculpture that was useless for their physical survival. "

Whilst we may never know the reason this work was created, the time spent on it in an age of nomadic hunter-gatherer routines is proof of its importance to the individual or community concerned. According to Cook, "the Lion Man makes sense as part of a story that might now be called a myth. The wear on his body caused by handling suggests that he was passed around and rubbed as part of a narrative or ritual that would explain his appearance and meaning. It is impossible to know what that story was about or whether he was deity, an avatar to the spirit world, part of a creation story or a human whose experiences on a journey through the cosmos to communicate with spirits caused this transformation." "Perhaps this hybrid", she concludes, "helped people to come to terms with their place in nature on a deeper, religious level or in some way to transcend or reshape it. "

Panel of Horses (33,000-20,000 BC)

Known as the Panel of Horses, this painting found in the Chauvet cave in fact features nineteen other types of animals, including deer and rhinoceroses, as well as its famous equine subjects in side profile. This beautiful and elaborate frieze is one of the most significant works in the Chauvet complex. As well as providing an important historical record of the animals that existed in prehistoric France, this painting gives a sense of the detail and realism with which early artists could capture the world around them.

The sophistication of technique, including figurative detail and perspective, characterizing the pieces at Chauvet has been frequently discussed. According to writer James C. Harris, the Chauvet drawings "are highly realistic, and many show perspective and utilize the contours in the cave wall, sometimes to suggest movement." F ocusing on the Panel of Horses, he notes "the presence [of] rhinoceroses at the bottom of this panel", with "small arched ears, crossed horns, and leg positions suggesting movement. Meanwhile, "the heads of the four horses in this panel most powerfully engage the viewer...The one showing the greatest detail [with] its open mouth suggests the horse is whinnying. "

The early artistic technique of stump drawing is evident in this painting. As archaeologist Jean Clottes explains, here, "the artist has crushed charcoal and mixed it with the soft whitish substance that covers the walls to obtain shades that range from black to dark blue, and he (or she) has skillfully spread the pigment inside the head and the body [of the horses] to create their contours, using the process currently known as 'stump drawing. '" Like many other works of ancient cave art, The Panel of Horses offers extraordinary insight into minds set far apart from ours in time yet sharing certain vital emotional, social, and creative instincts.

Venus of Willendorf (24,000-22,000 BC)

Perhaps the most well-known work of three-dimensional art from the Paleolithic period, the Venus of Willendorf is a sculpture of a woman with exaggerated female features including breasts, hips, and pubic area. A small work, measuring little more than four inches high, the statue has no distinguishing features other than a head full of coiled rows of hair, suggesting an archetypal character, perhaps meant to sum up certain principles of femininity or fertility, rather than an individual human being.

This work, discovered in Austria in 1908, is amongst several carved female figurines uncovered in caves across Europe. Their small size means the works were portable, contributing to debate over their intended purpose. As archaeologist Bruno David explains, these figures "have provoked many different interpretations ranging from children's dolls to 'mother goddesses'. They have been thought by some commentators to have acted as symbols of fertility in a harsh Ice Age environment where fecundity was highly valued, by others as images of women's bodies by and for men, and by others again as self-representations by women, or as obstetric devices to monitor the growth of the foetus and to aid with childbirth, or as a standardized way of stylized depiction to facilitate information exchange between communities. "

The documentation of the "Venus" figures is also an interesting example of the potential pitfalls of titling works after the fact. David asserts that these figures "have become a useful way of exposing the sociology of our own Western biases. " We think of Venus as the Greek goddess of love, and so by giving these works such a title we imply, with no basis in fact, that there is a sexual element to the figures. According to author Joshua Learn, "some experts believe they represent everything from self-depictions of women to ancient pornography. But many of these interpretations have now been discredited for the inherent sexism they carry." These interpretations were probably given extra currency by the "Venus" tag.

Useful Resources on Cave Art

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Cave Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 17 Mar 2022. Updated and modified regularly
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