Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cave Versus Museum

Image from the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Recently, I saw “The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” an exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

I was struck by the difference between how curators experience the world and how artists, including these ancient ones, do.

The docent said, “You can see a horse's head in the body of this bison. We do not know why they painted the bison over the horse.”
Maybe, simply, because they didn’t like how the horse was coming out?

The exhibit had videos of how these Cro-Magnon people made their arrowheads and bone needles. But the videos depicted someone someplace warm and dry, with clean hands and fingernails, with his implements arrayed in front of him in the golden light of some idealized fire, quietly doing his work.

But Cro-Magnon people most likely lived outside, wrapped in animal skins against the winter cold, huddled near a smoky fire, living together in a noisy, dirty, chaotic group.

Every mark made in Lascaux has been pondered. According to Wikipedia, “Applying the iconographic method of analysis to the Lascaux paintings (studying position, direction and size of the figures; organization of the composition; painting technique; distribution of the color planes; research of the image center), Thérèse Guiot-Houdart attempted to comprehend the symbolic function of the animals, to identify the theme of each image and finally to reconstitute the canvas of the myth illustrated on the rock walls ….”

But ancient painters often had to crawl on their bellies through narrow tunnels to get to their caves and the first time the Lascaux paintings were seen with full lighting was when they were photographed in 1947. The artists themselves only saw them by the flickering flames they held in their hands.

Artists are the ones who crawl down into the dark. It’s people with a totally different mindset who shine a light on what’s been done.

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