PARIS — For many, the Lascaux caves are the honey pot for what became artistic in the Western tradition. In La Peinture Prehistorique Lascaux Ou La Naissance de L’Art, Georges Bataille put forth the even bolder proposition that humanity first became human in the cave of Lascaux when we made (magical) art to communicate states of consciousness. More recently, artist Stacey Spiegel proclaimed Lascaux’s transparently stacked images to be the first work of “total art” (gesamtkunstwerk), and critic Howard Rheingold described it as the first example of virtual reality. Henri Breuil, the first scientist to study the cave of Lascaux after its discovery in 1940, called it the Sistine Chapel of prehistory, and in 1979 the cave was determined to be a World Heritage site. Closed to the public by André Malraux in 1963, Lascaux remains the finest site of rock paintings and etchings in the world.
Such high praise is not to suggest that it is the first human artistic expression made. The period between the invention of drawing — when animal forms and human genitals were engraved into rocks and bones 35,000 to 40,000 years ago by Cro-Magnons on the banks of the Vézère — and the creation of the Lascaux caves is as long as the period of time which separates us from the civilization of Lascaux.
With Lascaux and other prehistoric painted caves, humans penetrated deeply into the womb of darkness to paint and scratch images of animals on every surface of rough, rounded spaces, including the floor. Sadly, these are features which are impossible to convey through flat, rectilinear photos. Nonetheless, these photos lured more than a million visitors to Lascaux between 1948 and 1963. After having survived in a stable and somewhat sterile environment for 17,000 years, the cave and its images were suddenly exposed, in a relatively short space of time, to destructive elements brought in by human visitors, which resulted in the cave’s forced closure. Given the increasingly fragile state of the 17,000 year-old paintings and engravings, entering this pièce de résistance grows ever more unlikely for most of us. I consider myself extremely privileged to have been inside the actual cave of Lascaux as a research student.
In 1980, 17 years after the caves closed, the first full-scale simulation, spearheaded by the French State and the Conseil général de la Dordogne, opened to the public. The Salle des Taureaux at Lascaux was recreated by transferring life-sized color photographs onto a base that reproduced the shape of the original chamber. That simulation can now be seen in the Musée des Antiquités Nationales in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Then, starting in 1983, the project grew into Lascaux II in Montignac, Dordogne, where vistiors can see a replica of part of the cave in an enormous concrete bunker 980 feet from the real cave. It copies the shape of the Salle des Taureaux and the Axial Gallery (where 90% of the original paintings are located) and is part of the Centre International de l’Art Pariétal Montignac-Lascaux (CIAPML). Some 250,000 people visit Lascaux II each year (10 million since its opening).
For Lascaux II, painters (principlely French artist Monique Peytral) reproduced the figures and symbols of the Salle des Taureaux and the Axial Gallery — verily, the grand, central attractions of the caves — by using the same mineral pigments that the Magdalenians used. Here, the cavern tapers to form an overhead ceiling display where one finds a tremendous, 4.6-feet high stag with an enormous rack of entangled antlers flanked by three horses, an abstract, door-like form, and rows of dots. What is particularly noteworthy is that this tangle of animals exists in a groundless (virtual) atmosphere where bodies are not anchored to anything suggesting land.
There is now yet another new kid on the block, the Lascaux III facsimile — exhibited here at Paris Expo as Lascaux à Paris and now traveling the world until at least 2020. Three-dimensional imaging technology has made it possible to create an extraordinarily precise 1:10 scale-model of the cave so as to make something of Lascaux accessible to an international public. This scaled reproduction presents five new parts of the cave to the public, including replicas of the paintings in the Nave and Shaft. The Shaft was one of the places I could not go, so I was particularly interested in visiting its simulation at Lascaux à Paris. The Shaft is a six-foot-deep hole — just wide enough for one person to fit in comfortably — located halfway along the passageway toward the Chamber of Felines, and contains the famous scene of the wounded bison that is literally spilling his guts and the bird-headed reclining man with an erection (the sole human narrative in Lascaux).
Lascaux III has pretty good replicas of the paintings from the Nave known as the “Panel of the Imprint,” “Panel of the Black Cow,” “Panel of the Crossed Bison,” and the “Frieze of the Stags” (exquisitly swimming in line). These scenes are reproduced by hand by painters, engravers, and artists, using a complete laser, micrometric scan of the cave. The surface of the paintings at Lascaux III are rich, but, honestly, very far from what I saw in the cave. The walls of the real cavern have been coated with crystallised calcite due to flooding long, long ago, and the paintings there glimmer with a subtle sparkle that enchants the eye. Thankfully, the congealed calcite also served as a protective sealing which has preserved the painting’s remarkably fresh color. This glimmering effect was heightened further when my Ministère de la Culture guide lit a cigarette lighter in the darkness to better convey an idea of the original visual effect of tallow and burning wicks, which would have provided an unsteady twinkling light (as a candle flame does).
Finally, a full-scale, laser facsimile of the entire cave, called Lascaux IV, is now underway (opening in 2016) and will be housed in the sleek architecture of Snøhetta (with SRA Architectes from Châtillon) in the future CIAPML site in Montignacsur-Vézère, between the Vézère Valley and the Lascaux hill. Virtual reality specialist Jangled Nerves from Stuttgart has been brought into the project to oversee that aspect, as there will be an interactive digital gallery that will make links between cave art and contemporary art.
Though an educationally rewarding experience, we would be deluding ourselves in pretending that these simulations approach the experience and view within the actual Grotte de Lascaux (without even considering grit, smell, temperature, humidity, and lighting).
At Lascaux III, the feeling is still impressive, and it is possible to contemplate the panels in the silence and darkness. Yet the clean, modern supporting structure for the paintings told me otherwise. Indeed, they reminded me of Asian shadow theater where you are expected to pay no attention to the humans animating the puppets. Four hyperrealistic, anatomical sculptures of an old man, woman, teenager, and child (by the artist Elisabeth Daynes, based on data from paleoanthropology); a virtual visit to the cave; scale models, archive footage; and interactive games only provide further distractions at Lascaux III. But the worst distraction (unavoidable, I know) recalled Jean-Paul Sartre’s especially famous and often misinterpreted quotation, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (Hell is other people). The views and sounds of other people at the exhibition were contemplation killers, and took me far from my actual experience in the real cave.
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In the real cave, just prior to the Shaft is the Apse: a roundish, semi-spherical, penumbra-like chamber (like those adjacent to romanesque basiliques) approximately 5 yards in diameter covered on every wall surface (including the ceiling) with thousands of entangled, overlapping, engraved drawings. The ceiling of the Apse (which ranges from 5.2 to 8.9 feet high, as measured from the original floor height) is so completely and richly bedecked with engravings that it indicates that the prehistoric people who executed them first constructed a scaffold to do so. This indicates to me that the Apse was an important and sacred part of the cave, and unique. The space is undesirable or impossible to replicate, it seems, as it has been excluded from all previous simulations.
In the Apse of Lascaux, the etched walls do not have a singular point of view or a fixed position from which to observe the figures. The Apse’s extensive use of superimposed renderings presents the viewer with no single point of reference, no orientation, no top, no bottom, no left, no right, and no separate parts to the whole. Keeping in mind that the human’s natural field-of-view is roughly 120° high by 180° wide, the fact that the Apse’s perceptual field far exceeds these parameters accounts for the overflowing of images and visual chicanery experienced there. Moreover, the Apse’s uniform tone makes figure-ground readings difficult. Perhaps the apse was a training spot for the hunters to improve their discerning vision?
“To be, or not to be”: that is the paradigmatic choice when observing these forms that seem to come into and out of existence. Being, beings, or nothingness — all are tentative conditions here. In that sense, the Apse reminds me of the way in which John Cage’s musical composition/non-composition “4’33″” forces us to astutely consider silence as sound. Like Cage’s composition, the Apse is a meditation on fullness and emptiness: on the emptiness of fullness and the fullness of emptiness. And this is its key unreproducable value.
Nowhere is the eye permitted to linger over any detail — even though the Apse holds an immense 8.2-foot wide engraving in its midst. This is why, I think, the Apse has been ignored by art theorists (and there is only one widely published scholarly investigation of it per se, by Denis Vialou in Arlette Leroi-Gourhan’s “Lascaux Inconnu,” even though the French archaeologist André Glory spent several years trying to decipher this inextricable chamber). All the same, the Apse holds a semi-legible “index” of all of the representational forms scattered throughout the entire cave, thus making it (for me) Lascaux’s veritable conceptual center.
What pleased and fascinated me about the Apse is exactly what cannot be simulated for the public: its foreboding, cryptic, all-encompassing character, granted by its boundless palimpsests and wallpaper-like, brimming imagery. The overlapping, near-unreproducible drawings defy representation. Yet, when sustained visual attention is maintained, unexpected configurations visually emerge.
Obviously, the artists here did not work from life models, but from the overlapping, introspective depths of their visual memories. Thus the Apse is a complex mirroring of fleeting impressions, which constitute the movement of consciousness, the perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves. These are emotional experiences difficult to simulate and even more difficult to market.
Lascaux à Paris continues at Paris Expo, Porte de Versailles, Pavilion 8/B (1 Place de la Porte de Versailles, Paris) through August 30. Lascaux III will travel to Palexpo (Geneva), National Museum of Nature and Science (Tokyo), and Kyushu National Museum (Fukuoka, Japan).