Monday 18 February 2013

Shadows in the Cave - Celia Rees

Not everyone's cup of tea, but I couldn't wait to see it. I have visited caves in the Dordogne and in the Pyrenees and seen the astounding paintings but I have rarely seen the equally impressive carvings and objects which are on view here.

These objects are of enormous antiquity. 10,000, 20,000, 40,000, the years clock up like the whirling figure on a time machine, going back and still further back to a time we cannot imagine. They are strange to us, profoundly enigmatic, and have been subject to endless interpretation since they were first discovered. At first, because of their size and origin, they were often dismissed as toys. Toys? Really? Does the above look like a toy to you?

Or this?

It has been calculated that the Lion Man took 400 hours to make. Would that amount of effort be expended on a toy? It is clearly of far greater significance and this exhibition goes a long way to underline the importance of an object like this. It is a creature that could not exist. In that, it shows the workings of the imagination: a bonding of observation, interpretation and creativity that has informed art ever since. And perhaps it does more than this. I was reminded of the great cave painting in the Trois Frères Cave in Ariège, France, half man, half stag. Does it show a god, or a shaman? We can't know, it was painted 16,000 years ago, but there is a continuity of belief in the stag headed one from  this figure to Herne the Hunter and on to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance which is still performed today. 

The female figurines hold the same power and the same continuity of depiction. A tour of some of the other galleries in the British Museum will show similar abstract female figures but of a much more recent date. The earliest discoveries shown here, however, were often interpreted as mere erotic objects. Erotic object? Some kind of stone age sex aid? The mind boggles.

These little figurines have real power and a beauty that can only really be seen in three dimensions.

This figure, much admired by Picasso, has just the sketch of a face, a few lines, delicately etched. The effect is transformational. No wonder these figures inspired artists like Picasso, Matisse and Henry Moore, they sensed the specialness that emanates from these objects and obviously felt a kinship with their makers, an affinity that early archaeologists  appear to have largely lacked.

The animal carvings, etched on bone and mammoth tusk, show precise, exact observation of every hair,  muscle and whisker.

As in the cave paintings, there is an effort to record animals moving, a horse galloping, something not achieved until photography and moving pictures, but the desire to capture movement is the same.

The artists' vision, skill and complexity of execution, sense of purpose, focus, talent all telescope the time between us and them but when we look for meaning, purpose, the gap yawns wide open. 

'... we seem no closer to knowing why the people of that period penetrated the deep limestone caves of France and Spain to make images in total darkness ... and on pieces of portable stone, bone, ivory and antler. We do not know what the images meant to those who made them or to those who viewed them.'
The Mind in the Cave - Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis - Williams

This is the deep and abiding mystery which makes this art and these objects so fascinating. The gap created forces us to use our own imaginations just as they once did. I recently read Alan Garner's novel Boneland where he explores just this mystery. The book is set both in the present and in the very deep past.

'He cut the veil from the rock, the hooves clattered the bellowing waters below him in the dark. The lamp brough the moon from the blade the bull from the rock. The ice rang.

He took life in his mouth, spat red over his hand on the cave wall. The bull roared. Around, above him, the trample of the beasts answered, the stags, the hinds, the horses, the bulls, and the trace of old dreams.'
Boneland, Alan Garner

I like the idea of 'cutting the veil', of capturing the essence of something, it's inner core and meaning, and thus penetrating the separation of the spirit realm from the real world.

For me, the most enigmatic, mysterious, awesome object of all was probably owned by a shaman. It was found buried with him along with other objects which suggested his role and status. It is an articulated male figure, a puppet made from mammoth ivory, 27,000 years old. Once one realises that it would probably have been used to create a shadow play on the walls of a cave, one begins to sense something of its true meaning and power.

I was reminded of the allegory of  Plato's Cave.

 Perhaps these ancient peoples had more humility in the face of the mysteries and meaning of life than we have today. 

The idea of continuity and kinship, rather than separation and difference are key to understanding this art, its meaning and purpose. Here are the thoughts and reflections of the first people to enter the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche, France. 

'Alone in that vastness, lit by the feeble beam of our lamps, we were seized by a strange feeling. Everything was so beautiful, so fresh, almost too much so. Time was abolished, as if the tens of thousands of years that separated us from the producers of these paintings no longer existed. ... Suddenly we felt like intruders. Deeply impressed, we were weighed down by the feeling that we were not alone; the artists souls and spirits surrounded us. We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.'

The Mind in the Cave - Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis - Williams

Celia Rees


adele said...

Off out but will tweet this fascinating post later, Celia and also send link to Sally Prue whose wonderful novel SONG HUNTER is just out! She'll be very interested to read it!

Joan Lennon said...

I watched the TV programme about the exhibition the other day and wished, yet again, that someone would move London north about 500 miles!

Thank you for this wonderful post and photographs.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Fascinating! I'm going to London next week, I shall have to see if I can't fit in a visit.

Celia Rees said...

Always good to prompt visits, Marie-Louise. It's well worth it. I saw Sally Prue's book for sale in the shop, Adele. Was chuffed for her.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for this post, Celia, which conveys how truly awesome these objects are. I'm going to London this week and will definitely see this exhibition if we can get in. I see they are showing the film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (that title might not be quite right) at some point, and highly recommend this film to anyone who gets a chance to see it.

Penny Dolan said...

When I read about such amazing shows I wish I was nearer London too - which made it all the better to have your thoughts on this exhibition and the ideas it sets running, Celia. Thanks.

Ann, who are the "they" who are showing the film, please?

Sally Prue said...

I've just been to this exhibition myself, and the sculpture, not just as ancient artefact but as art, is extraordinary. You can feel the weight and danger of a bison, and sense the nervous delicacy of a deer. This one really is worth a visit if you possibly can.

And thanks, Celia: I'm thrilled to have a book for sale in the BM, where several of the flint axes we found in my childhood garden are now kept.

Unknown said...

I must go and see this exhibition - your blog has made me REALLY want to see it. Incidentally, there was a piece in the New Scientist about cave paintings, and apparently they may well represent an early form of animation - if lit in the right way, the animals actually move, and the multiple legs, etc, are part of this.

Celia Rees said...

I was really pleased to see your book in the BM shop, Sally. You must tell me all about the stone axes next time we meet. Thanks for reminding me about the Herzog film, Ann. I really want to see that. You can buy DVDs of it in the shop, along with Sally's book! And I thought that about the animation without even reading the New Scientist. Fascinating - I urge all to go and see it if you're in London - it's on for a while.

Unknown said...

Brilliant - fantastic post about an amazing exhibition... this is the kind of thing that connects us to our wildness. I'm heading for London this week - will try to make time to go in...

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Celia - beautiful post.

Ann Turnbull said...

Re the film, sorry - by "they" I meant the Museum. There is a showing of it one day during the exhibition's run. You can find details on their website. We saw it at the cinema in London last summer. My son's idea - I didn't know anything about it then. It's long and leisurely - but wonderful!

Jackie Morris said...

I think that these weren't artists. They were just people. Or maybe shaman who used their creativity to try and paint the souls of the creatures they drew. Love the sculptures, but the paintings of horses on the rock are just astounding. Thanks for this time traveling, thought provoking piece, Celia.

Freyalyn said...

I'm going to see this on Friday, and have been insanely excited about it since I discovered the BM was doing it. And the Herzog movie is quite magical (though with perhaps a bit too much jerky handheld camerawork.)

Ann Turnbull said...

Couldn't get in to the exhibition today - but bought the bookshop's last copy of Sally Prue's book (no doubt they will get some more in!)