Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave: ‘The Louvre of the Paleolithic Galleries’*
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the story of Chauvet Cave’s great art discovered only in December 1994. It’s a beautiful film offering a sensory experience into Paleolithic man’s paintings (and perhaps early attempts at animation) through music, storytelling, and images that you can only revisit through the DVD. With Herzog as the mediator and a small cast of archeologists and historians, we’re offered a rare glimpse into the human history of the cave and the search for meaning in the artwork as well as nearby landscapes and cultures.
What’s interesting is that even as Herzog follows the scientific investigation, its speculative nature is always present. As the unicyclist-juggler turned archeologist points out, the past cannot ever fully be known or reconstructed. There is just as much mysticism surrounding the people who decorated the caves and the panels upon panels of stunning depictions of horses, ibexes, lions, rhinoceroses, and bears. Two characters named Carole and Gilles have traced and analyzed the contours, layering, and compositions. They believe they can tell truths about the creators (down to one six-foot-tall person with a crooked pinky finger) and the creative process, all by reading line weight, shading, and human handprints.
What scientists DO know about Chauvet is that at approximately 31,000 years old, it’s the oldest known rock art — predating the art in Lascaux. The 1,300-foot cave has been spatially mapped (see above) in its entirety using laser scanners. (These digital images of the cave have stuck with me.) But for all of the scientific research that’s been conducted, we’re still fascinated by the earliest acts of artistic expression. The mysteries of modern human origins, especially early arts and culture, are what keep us searching for answers. Joe Morgenstern wrote in a Wall Street Journal review, “The unknowable or the mysteriously ambiguous in human behavior is what sets Mr. Herzog’s synapses to firing with singular intensity.”
I’ve seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams on four occasions. The first time was in a small, packed theater in Savannah, and it took my breath away. I felt especially moved because in 2007 I studied in the South of France and visited several nearby caves (including Lauscaux II, the recreation) during a Paleolithic rock art course. But the connection is more universal. Do yourself a favor and watch this film on Netflix streaming.
* According to sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in "On the Origins of the Arts" for Harvard Magazine.
Credit: Photo by unknown source. Screencaps by Whitney Dail.