As Europe begins to open up to travelers once again, the contemplation of cultural treasures awaits is more exciting than ever. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is personal encounters with great art and architecture – which I have collected in a book called Europe’s 100 best masterpieces. Here is an old favorite:
The Caveman of Lascaux is astonishing for how modern it is decorated. The walls are painted with animals – bears, wolves, oxen, horses, deer, cats – and even some animals that are now extinct, such as the woolly mammoth. There is hardly a sane human in sight, but there are human handprints.
This was all done during the Stone Age nearly 20,000 years ago, in what is now southwestern France. This is about four times as old as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt, before the advent of writing, metalworking, and agriculture. The caves were drawn not by thick-browed, bushy Neanderthals but by fully formed Homo sapiens known as Cro-Magnons.
These are not cliched charcoal-tipped stick logo graphics. Cave paintings were complex, expensive, and time-consuming engineering projects planned and executed in about 18,000 BC by dedicated artists supported by a unified and stable culture. First, they had to move all of their materials to a cold, very black, hard-to-reach place. (They didn’t live in these deep limestone caves.) The “canvas” was huge – the main caves of Lascaux are more than a football field long, and some animals are 16 feet tall. They erect scaffolding to reach high ceilings and walls. They grind metal with a mortar and pestle to mix paints. They worked on light bulbs and oil lamps. Recreate the scene by outlining the main shape of the figure with a series of connected points. Then these Cro-Magnon Michelangelos, balancing on scaffolding, created their own Stone Age Sistine Chapels.
The paintings are impressively realistic. The artists used wavy black outlines to indicate an animal in motion. They used dozens of different dyes to get a range of colors. They used a type of sponge made from animal skin for their “paint brush”. In another technique, they would draw outlines, then fill them with spray paint – blown through tubes made of hollow bone.
Imagine the beginning. Guided by a lamp, viewers will be led deep into the cave, into a cold, echoing and otherworldly room. In the dark, someone was lighting torches and lamps, and suddenly – whoops! – Animals flash to life, seeming to circulate around the cave, like a prehistoric movie.
Why are these Stone Age people – whose lives were most likely cruel and precarious – so concerned with creating a luxury as evident as art? nobody knows. Perhaps because, as hunters, they were drawing animals to magically increase the width of the game. Or perhaps they thought that if they could “master” the animal by drawing it, they could later master it in battle. Did they worship animals?
Or perhaps the paintings were simply the result of the universal human drive for creativity, and these caves were the first art galleries in Europe, and brought the first tourists. While the caves are closed to tourists today, the carefully produced replica caves nearby give visitors a lively Stone Age experience.
Today, a visit to Lascaux II and IV, as these replica caves are called, allows you to share a common experience with a caveman. You might feel a connection with these old folks…or feel in awe of how different they are from us. In the end, this art remains very similar to the human race itself – a mystery. and wonders.