Many years ago, my good friend who is a travel agent told me I must go to Dordogne, and see the cave paintings at Lascaux when we were in France. It sounded like a great plan but somehow my husband and I could never get there. So I am particularly thrilled that the caves have come to the Field Museum in Chicago. Now I have the chance to see many of the things I would see in France much closer to home.
Field Museum is First North American Venue for this amazing exhibit. The fascinating story of the caves begins on a September day in 1940, when four teenage friends chasing a ball that fell into a hole, entered the Lascaux Cave in southern France and stumbled upon an astonishing, priceless treasure. Beautifully subtle paintings and engravings of animals lined the cave walls – highly sophisticated artwork made by the hands of our early ancestors almost 20,000 years ago. Visiting the exibition, I had a hint of the thrill of discovery felt by those young cave explorers more than 70 years ago.
I was introduced to the exhibition when attending a lecture given by Jean Clottes, Former General Inspector for Archaeology, French Ministry of Culture. The lecture was the last one of a series, “Caves, Science and Art at the Dawn of Humanity”, an academic symposium inspired by the exhibition Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux, held on May 17-18, 2013. I spoke with Jean Clottes briefly before the lecture and he described the paintings and the exhibit in this way, “Lascaux is on of the two or three in the world. It is well dated, spectacular and 20,000 years old. It is one of the greatest masterpieces of the world of art, ever. The main idea in the exhibit replicas is to select some of the most important pieces of the caves. The replicas are faithful to the original cave and includes much more information.” Although visitors won’t have the chance to see Dr. Clottes in person, the last room in the exhibit offers interviews with many people associated with the caves including Dr. Clottes and there is a statement by him on the wall about the significance of art.
Dr. Clottes’s talk was entitled “Lascoux and Gabillou: Masterpieces of the Twin Caves”. His talk focused on two caves that are very near each other and explained the similarities and differences in these caves. Some of the more interesting points to me are that caves with paintings are not the caves where people lived. The caves where people lived revealed many artifacts and artistic items. The cave paintings were very dynamic and Lascaux shows horses and bison but no reindeer. There are not stars or plants and people are stick figures. The animals are individualized. The art is beautiful and the techniques have been studied. He said that whereas some caves show evidence of the use of torches, the caves near Lascaux were lit by oil lamps.
The exhibition itself is captivating, filled with both figures and artifacts from the Stone Age and photographs of the scenes in France at the time of the caves’ discovery. There is an amazingly life-like stone-age family, created by world-renowned sculptor Elisabeth Daynès. The family – an old man, an adolescent, a woman, and a child – are dressed in clothing and ornaments made of materials available 200 centuries ago. These people were far from 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.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibition was the Great Black Cow panel, a projection on the wall that constructs and deconstructs the painting, uncovering engravings, hidden animals, and symbols. Visitors can discover how the Lascaux artists took advantage of the cave’s natural relief to create perspective and movement.
Despite 70 years of research and analysis, the exact meaning and purpose of the Lascaux Cave paintings remain a mystery. Some who have studied the paintings 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. Regardless of their purpose, the paintings possess an undeniable beauty and power of great interest as an art form. Scenes from the Stone Age invites us to contemplate these splendid early masterpieces and reflect on the creativity and humanity of our early ancestors. This exhibition will be in place until early September but it is a good idea to see it as soon as possible – it will be gone before you know it.
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Published on May 25, 2013