Famous Paintings: Cave Paintings in Spain and France
An art history blog post from Famous Paintings Reviewed.
Although not often considered to be famous paintings per se,the cave paintings in Spain and France remain a defining event in art history, and are inarguably some of the most extraordinary prehistoric art.
Early cave paintings were found in 1994 in the Chauvet cave of southwestern France.
Images in the Chauvet cave include the bison, mammoth, wild horse, rhino, deer, owl, auroch (an ancestor of domestic cattle), ibex and even occasional people.
Big Horn Rhino, Chauvet Cave
It is believed that this massive network of caves was occupied by humans during two periods (the dates of which aren't unanimously agreed upon by archaeologists):
Radiocarbon dating indicates that Chauvet cave paintings were created during the Aurignacian occupation; from the Gravettian occupation comes the oldest known human footprints, those of a young boy.
The cave paintings in Spain's Altamira caves, recently dated to 12,500 BCE, typically featured paintings of bison and introduced a sculptural effect to prehistoric art. Its artists
Right: Altamira Cave, Bison
Although the Altamira Caves were discovered in 1879, these cave paintings were dismissed as inauthentic on the grounds that "primitive" people couldn't paint such prehistoric art.
Not until 1902 -- at which time other cave paintings had been discovered in northern Spain and France - was Altamira's famous artwork deemed prehistoric. And authentic! Archeologists continue to debate, however, whether the figures depicted were symbolic and fantastic, or were actual creatures who lived at the time.
In November, 2011, scientists examined the cave paintings in Pech-Merle (in southwestern France) and compared Stone Age with present age DNA. They concluded that the spotted horses depicted there (left) actually existed!
The most complicated cave paintings are found in Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of southern France. These caves - with an astonishing array of 600 cave paintings and 1500 engravings - were discovered in 1940 by four teenagers, Marcel Ravisdat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas.
In recounting his first glimpse of the cave paintings, Marsal described a
cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave; each animal seemed to be moving.
Unlike other caves in which prehistoric art has been discovered, Lascaux has a protective layer of chalk which rendered the cave waterproof, preserving these cave paintings for millenia.
Lascaux Caves, Great Hall of the Bulls.
As in the Altamira cave paintings, the Lascaux painters also incorporated the protrusions inherent in the walls. Subject matter included the ibex, auroch, bear and feline, whose most distinctive characteristics were exaggerated - these animals' eyes, hooves and horns are depicted simultaneously from the front and in profile.
Look how this simultaneity is captured centuries later in one of the best known Picasso paintings, Girl Before a Mirror.
Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror. Oil on canvas, 1932. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
During World War II, the Altamira caves were used by the French Resistance to store weapons. Opened to the public in 1948, these cave paintings became one of France's most popular tourist destinations until carbon dioxide exhalations, humidity, and contaminants triggered disintegration of the precious prehistoric art. The caves were closed to the public in 1963.
This video of the Lascaux cave paintings features remarkable closeups, and is as close as possible one can get to this remarkable prehistoric art. Enjoy!
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