- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

By Jean Clottes
Phaidon Press, $90, 336 pages, illus.

Much of what artists hope to express is their own struggle with solitude. They hug some sublime point of view jealously, and hope to make this private vision permanent, something that could be shared, something that would stun and persuade all who encounter it.

Thousands of years of cave art, the longest artistic tradition the world has ever known, came to a close at the end of the last ice age. Then the world forgot, and all of it stayed sealed, lost deep inside the earth.

While the outside world continued to change, the artistic impulse that made these things, and even the style and manner of execution, did not.

“Cave Art,” a spectacular new book by Jean Clottes, the authority on such scholarship, presents this experiment in both philosophical and aesthetic terms. His familiarity and expertise holds so many layers of understanding that France awarded him the Legion of Honor in 2000.

There had been some foreshadowing of these discoveries. The earth stubbornly gave up the first samples in 1879 at Altamira, Spain, and waited 70 more years to allow the murals of Lascaux in France to be seen.

The best and most compelling evidence so far, such as what turned up in caves at Chauvet, also in France, at Fumane in the Italian Alps and Hohlenstein in southern Germany, from 33,000 years ago, had never been seen again until the mid-1990s. And that fact is what proves our creativity did not evolve much at all, as so many art historians had believed up until then.

Instead, it has been ever thus.

That we have any of it at all is miraculous. The proof hinges more on the rare talents of one or a few individuals managing to be expressed, and then survive, and how such works become all the more scarce given the ravages of water, wind and time.

Even after the world had already noticed the genius of Pablo Picasso, this most revolutionary artist of the 20th century took his pilgrimage to one of the special caves in Spain.

“After Altamira, all is decadence,” Picasso apologized, this after confronting much of what he had hoped to do, already done by an artist from the Aurignacian Culture, the first of the modern Cro Magnon humans to encroach upon Neanderthal Europe.

Cave art already showed an understanding of optical perspective previously credited to Filippo Brunelleschi during the Renaissance. We see a sense of animal anatomy so assured and dynamic that the quality was not repeated until Leonardo DaVinci’s experiments.

We see shamanic hallucinations worthy of the surrealist Salvador Dali. Pioneering motion studies during the 1870s from the camera of Eadweard Muybridge, or Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” had already been imagined 30,000 years earlier.

Much as the artist Maya Lin wants to do now, the cave art at Chauvet even plays off the earth itself, where the natural shape of a crack or the bulge of a boulder turns into the leg and proud shoulder of a bison. The Cro Magnon artists of Europe seemed to find spirit and embodiment in the same raw material.

This is not simply the old artists’ lament about how everything worth saying has already been said. By no means did cave art merely influence later vision; and all these later artists were not the originators of it either. An artistic impulse has always been carved into our nature, and more proof still lies waiting.

J. Ross Baughman, a senior editor with The Washington Times News Service, wrote about recent discoveries in cave art in his 2005 book “The Chain Rejoined.”

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