One of the most amazing art experiences I have ever had in my life was to stand in front of the Spotted Horses in the cave of Pech Merle, on a vacation with friends in the Quercy region of southern France. These are images that were created, according to carbon dating and archeological estimation, around 25,000 B.C. In this cave, there are drawings of bison, mammoths, horses, and lions, as well as fossilized scat identified as that of hyenas. The world outside, what we now call western Europe, was so different, but people used their hands and minds to make not only representational images but also just shapes with color. It was a humbling and awesome feeling to see it in person.
Pech Merle is one of the prehistoric painted caves that, at least at that time, small groups of people could still visit. The big kahuna of Ice Age caves, of course, the stunning Lascaux cave, was closed many years ago because an insidious white mold, fed by the moisture from the breath of human visitors, began to grow everywhere and destroy the paintings. (To prevent this from happening, caves like Pech Merle are carefully controlled in terms of humidity and temperature.)
One person who has been allowed inside Lascaux is Renaud Sanson, who was profiled in an article by Anne-Marie Romero (Les mystères de Lascaux en partie levés, July 28) for Le Figaro. His basic point is that studying Lascaux from an archeological angle is futile, since most of the cave floor was disturbed and contaminated as soon as it was discovered. He is analyzing the cave as "humanity's first masterpiece in art history," a place where, 19,000 years ago, artists "were not content simply to make drawings but created paintings that cover all of the wall space." The story of how he came to be doing that is interesting (my translation):
It was after a series of chance events that this Parisian, a part-time arts worker, was called to work at first on Lascaux II (the reproduction of the cave that people can visit), in 1981, and then, several years later, on the Centre d'interprétation du Thot. Chance events that ended up determining his destiny. At 59 years old, he is now based in Montignac, and even if he now accepts other reproduction commissions, like that of the Niaux cave or the Ekain cave in the Basque country of Spain, for example, Lascaux is his life's passion.The French government hired him to make another permanent reproduction exhibit, Lascaux révélé (Lascaux revealed),that has become "not just a commission but a concept" for Sanson. The artist's studio in Montignac, an old hangar where in the 90s he based his company, ZK Productions, has been renovated and opened to public visitors since July 1. There you can watch Renaud Sanson and his team in the process of reproducing, exactly as possible, the paintings from the Lascaux cave.
"I am a painter who does not want to be a creator. My work is a success if I manage to become completely invisible. I exist only if I do not exist." A curious statement for an artist. But, if he does not want his work to be immortalized, it is because he finds happiness elsewhere. "Making these reproductions is going to revolutionize our understanding of Lascaux," he continues, "because digital images allow us to understand the painter's actions, to recreate his process, his reworking, his hesitations, and his goal, and that's what I am interested in right now."They use a high-powered digital camera to take extremely detailed pictures of the cave wall, including its contour. On the computer, each pixel is analyzed, to be reproduced exactly by hand with computer and image projector assistance. A second copy of the Lascaux Revealed exhibit is being prepared so that it can travel to other countries. Requests to host it have already come from Japan, Basel, Bilbao, and Australia. You can only see the team actually at work, however, in Montignac.