In the quiet village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of France, stands one of the world’s finest examples of cave art, and in my opinion, one of the greatest artistic achievements ever. This complex network, like all prehistoric art, represents a great evolutionary leap into modern intelligence, known as ‘The Transition’. Lascaux was discovered by accident in 1940, and contains some simply mind-blowing paintings, both in skill and proportion. One only has to see the scale of the bulls in the Hall of the Bulls (one is more than 5 metres long) to be mesmerised.
The variety of animal species, including aurochs (ancient bulls), horses, lions, ibex, bison, are painted in a seemingly uncontrolled method; with species sharing space that would probably have given each other a wide birth in Nature. Also, some of the animals are super-imposed, painted between and across one another, some floating in odd positions, upside-side, bent around to fit with the subtle curvature of a fragment of rock. No backgrounds are ever present in cave art, the source of the rock provides it, and flora is never depicted, unless perhaps in unintelligible lines and dots. These aspects bear a certain similarity to Cubist art; the haphazard but clever layout of the composition, the intersection and angles of some of the animals, all seem to pluck them out of their realistic context, instead forcing them into an abstraction, a spectrum of un-reality. Even the reducing of some of the painted animals to a few carved or painted lines bears a similarity to later Cubism.
The Hall of Bulls and Guernica
The Hall of Bulls, the grandest, largest and one of the most heavily painted areas of Lascaux, sweeps across the ceiling, like the great arc of the sun from East to West, seeming to converge in the centre of the ceiling, over the entrances to the narrower, more hostile sections of the cave. Here, horses and bulls seem to run across the sky right above your head, leading us to question, how on earth was this painted, when our ancestors had no ladders, or the use of ropes and pulleys to create a painting platform? Indeed they were brave to enter in the chasms of the underworld, and for the seemingly cumbersome task of painting such majestic murals.
In the same way that Lascaux is always mentioned at the forefront of prehistoric artistic masterpieces, so we always mention Guernica when discussing Picasso and the birth or modern art. Both move the viewer, even though their subject matter is very different. Let us first mention Guernica.
Guernica was painting by Picasso for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937, at the time when Guernica, a small basque town in Northern Spain was horrendously bombed by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War. The town was in ruins, completely destroyed, and Picasso felt in necessary to bring the attention of this war to the world. This huge, seven-metre-long mural is monochrome, consisting of only black, white and greys. It is shocking in its grim portrayal of the war, and though its style is cubist, and almost crudely cartoon, its impact is not decreased. In fact, the exaggerated faces of the screaming Basque people, the animated dead baby dangling from its mother’s arm, the raging horse dominating the mural and the fallen horse beneath it create a scene of almost pitiful hatred. Though controversial, Guernica achieved what Picasso wanted; awareness for the suffering during the Civil War. Today this painting hangs in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, as a standing testament to those who died.
The comparisons between Lascaux’s Hall of the Bulls and Picasso’s Guernica start here. Both murals are chaotic, with the figures, whether of animals or people, are all pushed together, almost colliding into one another closet to the centre of the painting. The positions of Lascaux’s bulls and horses, with small, barely visible stags between them, suggests an air of excitement, or fear – perhaps this scene was replicating a hunt, or a stampede, or the animals during bad weather – and its is in this same fashion in Guernica that certain figures are concealed and distorted by another.
There is a strange mix, of animals and figures, that would not usually have shared the same space. Also, scale and proportion is altered; the fallen person in the left of Guernica is the same size as the wounded horse. Limbs are too large, eyes are misplaced. The stags in The Hall are tiny in comparison to the horses they run beside, when in fact, the two species are of fairly similar size. The horses and bulls trip over one another, all heading towards the centre of the ceiling Perspective is practically unapparent; it is only evident in Lascaux due to the shape of the cave walls, and background too, is minimal.
These common traits give the murals further impact. Where perspective and background fall away, the mind is freed by their restrictions, able to draw up fresh conclusions that would have otherwise been limited. Is Guernica a scene inside a building or a house, is it in the ruins of the town itself? Are Lascaux’s bulls running at each other, or are they actually running in the cave? There are numerous possibilities.
What’s So Special About Art?
Both creations leave us feeling mystified, amazed and insignificant. They are both depicting scenes that we can never truly touch, and never truly understand. They leave us questioning our own destiny; where we have been and where we are heading as a species. Perhaps Lascaux symbolises the fight for evolution between the species, and Guernica reminds us harshly of our own.
As our ancestors re-emerged from the cave and began to create words, language, civilisations, obviously their production of art and their need for it changed. Art became something much more decorative, with body adornments such as jewellery, pendants and figurines being carved. Art also became more portable, and pottery flourished. As art movements develop today, rapidly changing from one to the next and colliding in the middle, to create something entirely new, the same is true in Pre-history. Stone-carving took a back seat and metalworking was developed, and the Bronze Age brought about greater skill and diversity of art. Just like today, art was taken over to the artisans, instead of being mass-produced by the civilisation as a whole. The ‘primitive’ art created by our hominid fathers gave way to the Symbolism of Ancient Egypt and the architecture of the Nile Valley. The richly detailed art of the Americas was the first Romanticism, and in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aborigines of Australia gave us the first glimpse of Surrealism.
As artistic movements reappear, as suddenly as though the sun sets, perhaps prehistoric art will re-emerge, in thousands of years to come. Its importance in our transition from ape to man should not be underestimated. Without the ochre horses of our ancestors, we would not have any of the masterpieces we see today, in our museums, in our homes, and in our hearts.
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