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On the Origin of Beauty: Art in the Caves

On 18 December 1994, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire descended into the caves of Ard├Ęche in Southern France. The three friends later described their discovery of a rich display of images painted and engraved on the subterranean walls and ceilings, vividly recalling how:

'Alone in that vastness, lit by the feeble beam of our lamps, we were seized by a strange feeling. Everything was so beautiful, so fresh, almost too much so. Time was abolished, as if the tens of thousands of years that separated us from the producers of those paintings no longer existed. It seemed as if they had just created these masterpieces. Suddenly we felt like intruders. Deeply impressed, we were weighed down by that feeling that we were not alone; the artists' souls and spirits surrounded us. We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.'

Controversial Antiquity

Chauvet and his friends had come face to face with the enigma of Upper Palaeolithic art and the many baffling questions it raises for our understanding of the development of humanity. When the first pieces of Stone Age art began to be unearthed in the 1830s, the antiquity of these engraved statuettes, pendants, spear-throwers, plaquettes and beads made from mammoth ivory, bone and antler was unrecognised and then fiercely disputed. Together with the discovery in 1879 of Palaeolithic paintings and engraved images on the walls and ceilings of the Altamira Cave on the northern Spanish coast, these pieces disturbingly upturned the comfortable notion that only the highest civilisations achieved artistic greatness. How could the earliest humans, the Magdalenans, Gravettians and Solutreans of the Upper Palaeolithic period from about 45,000 to 10,000 years ago, have produced such detailed representational imagery and transformed rock formations into visual depictions of animals, humans and geometric signs?

Symbolic Imagery and Mental Sophistication

Explanations to account for this art confront the origins of aesthetic sensibility itself. Whilst the antiquity and authenticity of Palaeolithic cave art may no longer be contested or denied, enduring notions of early human savagery and bestiality still require significant reworking. The very inaccessibility and dark underground conditions of many of the finest surviving paintings point to the illogicality of suggestions that the art was simply a leisure pursuit, and as such was produced purely for looking at. However, if the paintings and engravings are accepted as evidence of symbolic imagery in early humans, this implies a mental sophistication that exceeds their supposed primitive state. Whilst many researchers describe a sharp increase in the development of hunting strategies, the appearance of different tool types and an explosion in the use of body decoration during the period, these are not adequate in themselves to account for the making of images of animals and people. An understanding that an image is a visual representation of something else requires a different sort of mental ability from that which simply recognises the social distinction of a symbolic marking on the body. Does Palaeolithic art indicate the development of something akin to an innate aesthetic sense in humans at that time?

Imagery and Socialisation

However, it is necessary to look further than such individualistic explanations in attempting to understand the reasons behind the sudden emergence of art in the Upper Palaeolithic period. For marks to be representative of something else, they need to be recognised as such. The circles that depict a woolly bison must be able to produce the mental image of a woolly bison in other viewers if they are to be successful. Art making therefore both derives from and is contingent upon its social function, meaning and understanding. The imagery of Upper Palaeolithic art suggests a link therefore between the development of aesthetic sensibility and an increase in social diversity during the period. Within the prevailing social dynamics, image-making perhaps emerged as a means of establishing and defining social relationships.

Unanswered Questions

So it is that many questions remain unanswered today. Why did the people at that time penetrate deep into the caves of France and Spain to create paintings and images in complete darkness? What was the meaning of these images for the people who created them and to those who travelled to view them? And, perhaps most significantly, how did we become human and in doing so begin to create art?

  • Visit the Chauvet Cave for a virtual tour, history and site information.
  • Enlarge photographs of Palaeolithic paintings from the Chauvet cave.
  • Visit this comprehensive website of information and illustrations of cave and rock art. The Chauvet pages include descriptions of visits to the cave and a gallery of the paintings with commentaries.
  • Information on caves for visitors and tourists.

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