Four Inspiring Examples of Rock Art

Whenever you hear the word ‘cave art’ or ‘pre-historic art’ your mind instantly wanders to those great wonders like Lascaux or Altamira. And no one can blame you. Those two sites are the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art. But sometimes, the more subtle, more humble examples of art can be more numinous. Just as, say, a small, intimate wayside chapel can feel more spiritual than the Sistine Chapel, so a lot of cave paintings can be more inspiring than their better-known cousins.

So here are, for your pleasure and inspiration, four locations and their unique pre-historic rock art, which you’ve very probably never heard of, but will definitely want to experience.

Iran

Iran Rock Art

We tend to forget Iran’s long, inestimable history when we hear about it. We just tend to think insane Ayatollahs and nuclear deals and, you know, cranes. But Iran, let’s not forget, is the heir of one of history’s oldest, proudest and most civilizing of all ancient empires: Iran is the daughter of Persia. But even before Persia was ever born, human beings lived in Iran and witnessed the very dawn of agriculture. In Iran and the Middle-East mankind made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. So it’s no surprise there are so many cave sites embellished with rock art there. Sites like the Warwasi rock shelter in Western Iran, or the impressive engravings outside the village of Khomeyn, believed to be the oldest known rock engravings ever found. Interestingly, 90% of all rock art found in Iran includes a depiction of the ibex deer. It is to Iran what the eland is to South Africa.

Dabous 

Dabous Giraffes

I couldn’t help but be blown away when I discovered these, in a part of the Sahara desert known as the Tenere – literally ‘the place where there is nothing’ – but this unremarkable, hostile, Martian landscape hides an other-worldly secret. The largest known rock engravings anywhere in the world. Created over 10,000 years ago when, scientists think, the Sahara was far greener it is than today. The two rock engravings depict a pair of giant giraffes. And I do mean giant – the larger figure is over 18 feet tall. They are engraved in the sandstone using a variety of techniques including scraping,smoothing and deep engraving of the outlines. This masterpiece of pre-historic art deserves as much recognition as a Guernica or the Fate of the Animals. And we should be far more in awe of this wonder created in such harsh climes rather than the blood-churningly arrogant works of a spoiled Damien Hirst.

Alta, Norway

Alta Norway Rock Art

From the over-heated dunes of the Sahara to the frigid Nordic landscape of Norway; one of my favourite places on earth. The Alta petroglyphs are perhaps among my personal favourites. A great lover of anything Arctic, these engravings depict scenes which I’ve long been depicting in my own paintings. Engravings of bear and cub. Elk. Northern lights – yes, even the northern lights were depicted, faintly, but it’s no surprise that such a miracle of nature would have captured the imagination of those Neolithic painters. Hunting scenes. Reindeer. It’s all there. And, as a painter, it’s interesting to see these rock engravings on a different colour background – away from the usual yellows and browns of caves, here they are depicted on a greyish-blue canvas!

Argentina


The ‘cave of hands’ of Cueva de los Manos in Argentina is an almost Baroque piece of pre-historic art. A cave system with, as the name suggests, a great amount of painted, red ochre hands, the hand-prints of people who lived well over 9,000 years ago. Alongside them there are depictions of felines, rheas, guanacos and abstract patterns. You wouldn’t normally associate Argentina with pre-historic art, but maybe we should, that country of gauchos, barbecues and strong liqueurs has been inhabited by artistic minded people for thousands of years – and they’ve left us souvenirs to die for!

Images: Bradshaw Foundation

These are just a few of the little snippets of inspiration that made, and continue to make me a painter. What is it that inspires you most as an artist? In my next blogs I’ll be sharing some of my smaller Palaeolithic inspired paintings, and talking about their making.

A Comparison – Lascaux and Guernica

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.

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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.

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In the same way that Lascaux is always mentioned at the forefront of prehistoric artistic masterpieces, so must one always mention and ponder on “Guernica” when discussing Picasso and the birth or modern art. Both create a significant impact whilst looking at them, even though their subject matter is very different. Let us first mention “Guernica”.

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“Guernica” was created 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 begin 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.

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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.

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.

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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 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 Pre-historic 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.