The theories surrounding the myths of Palaeolithic art have been born, cast aside and challenged ever since the first caves were discovered back in the late 1800’s. Whilst we will never truly know why our ancestors painted certain species within the depths of Europe’s Ice Age caves, it seems that our ancestors were great admirers of the natural world, and quite possibly were simply painting the world as they saw around them.
On first glance, the panel of horses at Chauvet in France are no more or less unremarkable than any other painted panel from the same epoch, but on closer inspection, this panel is something special. Depicting dynamic movement instead of static figures, use of perspective and shading for a powerful visual effect. The four horses that dominate the panel teeter on top of one another like a circus act; belittling the plane of perspective that they seem to sit on.
The composition of these horses and their stylised eyes and manes draws great comparison to the lost work of German Expressionst Franz Marc.
The ‘Tower of Blue Horses’ is one of Marc’s finest paintings, depicting a subject he greatly admired and worked hard to capture; the horses. Fascinated by the masculine and feminine qualities of this majestic animal, Marc no doubt shared his war years in close companionship with the horses who toiled, fought and died alongside him.
Looking closely at Marc’s ‘Tower’ and the Chauvet panel, it is striking just how similar these two compositions are. (Chauvet was not discovered until 1994, Marc died in battle in 1916). Both pieces are arranged in a tier – with four horses almost precariously balanced on top of each other and gazing downwards and left. Marc has rejected traditional shading and realism to depict an almost mythical, spiritual horse that exudes power and grace. The bodies of both the lower horses seem to solidfy the rest of the scene, yet the figures are also distinctly separate.
Marc’s depiction and style of subject was not unique, as the horses of Chauvet were not unique either. However, perhaps both artists were seeking the same goal; a visual, spiritual representation of admiration.
The ‘Tower of Blue Horses’ has unfortunately been missing since 1945, so, like the horses of Chauvet, the secrets of these stunning pieces may never be fully understood.
Another question one feels compelled to ask is, what is it about the horse that seems to capture the human imagination? From 40,000 year old homo sapiens to enamoured young girls to Classical Greek and Renaissance artists, the horse has long fascinated us. A beast of burden, a mounted arm, a racing champion; the horse has had many uses throughout the centuries, but what use was the Paleolithic horses? Was it hunted, or feared, or respected?
Marc himself said of the horse : “Only today can art be metaphysical, and it will continue to be so. Art will free itself from the needs and desires of men. We will no longer paint a forest or a horse as we please or as they seem to us, but as they really are.” And this essence seems reflecting in the horses of Chauvet, Lascaux and Peche-Merle, amongst others. The horses here are not painted as sources of food, or fear, but painted as respected, almost god-like beings. (Note that the horses seem to dwarf the fearsome rhinos beneath them.)
This sensitive, powerful animal has captured the artist’s imagination for centuries, and for me, Marc’s honest and touching rendition of this subject in bold, vivid colours and smooth lines is the perfect correlation between Palaeolthic and Modern art.
It seems a shame that in this BBC list of ten great horses in art that Chauvet was not listed, as for its great age and skill, it is surely one of the finest.