I am just back from Werner Herzog's extraordinary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his exploration, visually and philosophically, of the Chauvet cave in southern France. There, in 1994, a collection of prehistoric art was discovered by three explorers who found a small opening in a cliff and soon were face-to-face with an almost unfathomable array of paintings. The French government immediately closed access to the cave to all but a select group of scientists and historians. Herzog's film, presented in vivid 3-D, is the closest any of us is likely to get to the art.
The paintings in Chauvet are more than 30,000 years old, making them nearly twice as old as those in Lascaux or Altamira, Europe's other great caches of Paleolithic art. They were made by our Cro-Magnon ancestors, literally at the dawn of Homo sapiens. When the paintings were created, Neanderthal man was not yet extinct.
The implications of this are profound, suggesting there is no gap between the emergence of modern man and the appearance of artistic expression. Art is intrinsic to our being. Imagination shaped our identity.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the paintings is their realism. The creatures in Chauvet are rendered with a remarkable level of detail and precision that Herzog's 3-D cameras richly reveal. The Chauvet artists expressed volume and mass with a highly sophisticated sense of modeling and chiaroscuro. There is a precise balance to the animals, even a kind of poise, and a sense of movement suggested through posture and the repetition of limbs or horns, almost a proto-animation. By far the most moving element of the paintings are the animal's eyes, which, through careful rendering of shape and size and gradation of light, seem filled with life, and an awareness that occasionally borders on pathos.
Throughout the picture Herzog describes the images as paintings, but I kept regarding them also as drawings, which raised an interesting thought. In the Renaissance there was a philosophical distinction between painting and drawing; painting being the expression of immediate, fleeting perception, drawing the contemplation of essence. Drawing was more than the definition of form; it was a revelation of underlying principles. There are moments in Chauvet when the same insight seems to be at work. Far from merely recording reality, these cave artists seem to probe it, and have already begun interrogating the meaning of life.
That this appears to be true, that from our earliest days art has been a way we created meaning, is suggested in the cave's most provocative image, dubbed by archeologists the Minotaur. The picture, drawn on a suspended pendant of rock, depicts a bison embracing a female figure. The naked woman, the only human depiction throughout the massive cave, evokes paleolithic carvings of Venuses, those primal effigies of sexuality, fertility, creation. The Chauvet Venus is represented only by her pubic triangle and legs, slightly spread. The bison appears to enfold her in an attitude of tenderness, contemplation, and what can only be described as wonder. Gazing at this picture is like being present at the birth of myth, the emergence of the collective unconscious.
This is the miracle revealed in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Along with an astounding treasury of human ingenuity, Herzog's film presents us with the earliest expressions of our soul.