Artworks and Artists of Cave Art
Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel
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. "
Ivory - Collection of Museum Ulm, Germany
Panel of Horses
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.
Pigment on rock - Chauvet cave, Ardèche Valley, France
Venus of Willendorf
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.
Limestone with red ochre - Collection of Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Venus of Laussel
The so-called Venus of Laussel is an 18-inch bas-relief carving featuring a woman with large breasts and hips. Her left hand rests on her stomach while in her right hand she holds a carved horn (most believe that of a bison) on which are carved thirteen lines. While her face contains no distinguishing features, she appears to be turning her head to the right as if to look at the horn.
Arguably the most famous of the five carvings found amongst the cave painting treasures discovered in the Laussel Cave in the Dordogne Valley of France in 1911, this work has been the source of extensive debate over its meaning. As with the Venus of Willendorf, discussions around the provenance and significance of the object tell us as much about the eras in which different theories were advanced as the age in which the artwork was created. Many contemporary commentators have noted the sexism implicit in the assumption that works placed in the "Venus" category carry some sexual charge.
Nonetheless, the most accepted interpretation of this work is that as one of several depictions of females with exaggerated breasts and pubic areas, this female form represents an archetype of feminine fertility. As author K. Kris Hirst explains, some scholars have gone so far as to argue that what she is holding "is not a horn core, but rather an image of the crescent moon, and the 13 stripes cut into the object are an explicit reference to the annual lunar cycle. This combined with the Venus resting her hand on a large belly, is read as a reference to fertility, some speculate that she is illustrated as pregnant. The tallies on the crescent are also sometimes interpreted as referring to the number of menstrual cycles in a year of an adult woman's life. "
Limestone with red ochre - Collection of Museum of Acquitaine, Bordeaux, France
This image of a bison is part of a large number of animals depicted in the Altamira cave. Painting the beast in side-profile, the artist has gone to great efforts to make the animal as detailed as possible, including distinguishing features such as horns, hooves, and tufts of hair. Pablo Picasso's bulls and other larger animals are often reminiscent of the bison of Altamira, and it is known that images like this had a profound effect on the painter's imagination.
Painted on the ceiling, bison are the most frequently depicted animal in the Altamira complex, with this being one of the finest examples. A distinguishing feature of the art found in the Altamira cave is the striking use of color to represent fauna, the deep orange of the animal's side still vivid thousands of years later. This is a result of the vibrant red ochre pigment used to both outline the bison and to fill in its flank.
Interestingly, the bison does not appear in relation to any landscape, rather seeming to float free amongst the other animals. This leads to questions regarding the purpose behind its placement. Whilst we will probably never know the answers to these questions, possible theories include that the animal was merely decorative, that it served as a teaching tool, and that it was used during religious ceremonies in the cave, during which people would gaze up in wonder at the illuminated ceiling.
Pigment on rock - Altamira cave, Cantabria, Spain
Hall of Bulls
The Hall of Bulls is a painting featuring a large number of prehistoric animals, including bulls, horses, aurochs, and deer. Placed on a large segment of rock in the interior of the Lascaux cave, the animals are presented in different degrees of detail and size, suggesting that the drawing was created by multiple people, potentially over an extended period of time.
The Lascaux cave, one of the most impressive in the Paleolithic period, features many different paintings across several chambers. The area known as the Hall of Bulls is important because it supports the view that certain areas in ancient caves were used as gathering places for spiritual rituals or ceremonies. According to archaeologist Jean Clottes, the Hall of Bulls "would have been able to accommodate relatively large groups. The drawn or painted images are detailed, sometimes complex, and of considerable size. They are visible from a distance...This suggests participation in collective ceremonies, which might have been frequent or rare. These meticulously prepared and very visible images might have played a social role in the celebration of rites, in the perpetuation of beliefs and of perceptions of the world and in recruiting the aid of invisible powers. "
A noteworthy feature of this painting is that all the animals appear to be moving, many of them even charging towards each other. This contributes to the mystery of the panel and raises questions as to whether it could represent a particular event, or used as a teaching tool to show all the animals in the area which would be available for hunting.
Pigment on rock - Lascaux cave, Montignac, France
Male figure with bird head and disemboweled bison
In this painting found on the walls of the Lascaux cave, a creature is depicted with a male body and the head of a bird. To the left of the figure is a stick, perhaps a spear, on which is perched a bird. To the right is a large bison whose intestines have been pulled from its body. Commonly referred to as the "bird man" panel, this painting is a rare example of a figure drawing from Paleolithic Europe, where non-human animals are much more frequently found.
Debate surrounds the intended meaning of this painting, as archaeologist Bruno David articulates: "are these examples of rituals, religious performances that involved people wearing masks and, in the case of the 'bird-man' of Lascaux, associated with a kind of bird wand?" We know that the figure is a composite creature, which many scholars have associated with religious or mythical functions, making such an assumption possible. Other parts of the drawing are even more mysterious. The bird man's erect penis begs the question of whether there is a sexual meaning attached to the work, potentially connected to its religious role.
Other explanations have also been forwarded, however. The fact that an injured bison appears next to the figure has led some to consider the drawing a symbol or talisman to ensure a productive hunt. There is also debate as to whether the birdman and bison are related at all. Were they simply placed next to each other at random; were they even drawn at the same time, or by the same person? Such discussion typifies the mystery that surrounds cave art, which does nothing to lessen its appeal to modern audiences.
Pigment on rock - Lascaux cave, Montignac, France
In the aptly named Cave of the Hands a collection of handprints is stenciled onto the cliff wall in red, black, and white pigments. As author Nick Dall explains, "of the 829 handprints most are male, one has six fingers and only 31 are of right hands. All of the prints are negatives or stencils; created by placing the hand against the rock face and blowing paint at it through a tube made of bone. " One of the most striking aspects of the artwork is the way that form and background colors switch, such that the color of a hand in one section reappears as the base color - behind the hand - in another.
When we look at this ancient rock art, we are inevitably led to wonder what caused our ancestors to mark their presence in this way. Dall offers two possible explanations. "[O]ne of the more plausible theories is that the hands were painted by adolescent boys as part of an initiation ceremony or rite of passage. This is backed up by the fact that many of the handprints are not large enough to have been made by fully-grown adults. Another popular theory is that the paintings were made as part of a religious ceremony that preceded a hunt. "
Whatever the explanation for their presence, these handprints are amongst the most extraordinary of all ancient artworks. Whereas other Paleolithic symbols and figures depict a life of hunting and nomadic wandering that feels distant to us, we share the basic features of our bodies - the shapes of our hands, for example - in common with our earliest ancestors. Indeed, there is no aspect of this image that could not have been created in the recent past, particularly given our modern preoccupation with abstract forms and gestures. Thousands of years of history seem to dissolve as we gaze at the walls of Cueva de las Manos.
Pigment on rock - Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina
Gwion rock paintings
These Gwion rock paintings depict figures with elongated bodies. Elaborately dressed, many wear what appear to be feathers, tassels, and headdresses. A majority of the figures carry objects including spears and boomerangs. These are amongst a large number of images dotted across 100,000 sites veering 50,000 square kilometers of north-west Australia's Kimberley region. First discovered in 1891 by agriculturalist Joseph Bradshaw, the Gwion paintings constitute a whole tradition or school within Australia's rich history of ancient rock painting.
According to author Candida Baker, the Gwion paintings are among the most mysterious of Australian rock drawings due to the unusual appearance of the figures, with their many ornaments and appendages. Baker notes that these paintings are "quite different to any other known Australian rock art". She also comments on the unusual sophistication of the images, which seems to appear fully-formed in the earliest pieces created in this tradition, whereas normally we would expect such intricacy of effect to evolve over time. Baker cites Maria Myers, Chair of the Kimberley Foundation Australia (KFA), who notes that, in the case of Gwion paintings, "the first iteration of the art is the most sophisticated and beautifully painted, which suggests that whoever did the art was portraying a developed culture. "
Discoveries such as the Gwion rock paintings go a long way to disprove assumptions that prehistoric peoples were unsophisticated and underdeveloped. They suggest that the societies that produced rock art were capable of elaborate systems of social coding and stratification through dress, ornament, and figurative art.
Pigment on rock - Kimberley, Australia