Sunday 16 June 2019

Where art began: Lascaux - by Sue Purkiss

I can just imagine the readers of this blog, who quite rightly expect evidence for every assertion, sniffing suspiciously at that title. "How do you know?" murmur my imaginary readers. "How can you be certain that's where it began? There are new discoveries all the time - who knows what remains to be found in Siberia/Australia/Africa?"

And of course that's quite true, and it's one of the reasons why the study of prehistory is so fascinating at the moment. There is new evidence all the time - new finds, new technologies which allow for more accurate dating and upend existing theories - and I am only an enthusiastic amateur. But Lascaux and the other painted caves of France and Spain must certainly have a strong claim - the art in Lascaux is reckoned to be approximately 20,000 years old - so I hope it's a forgivable claim.

I first became fascinated by cave art when I visited a less well-known cave in the region five years ago: Pech Merle. It's one of the very few caves now which you can enter: most of them, including Lascaux, are now closed to the public because exposure to people and to air from the outside has led to damage from microscopic organisms which threatens the very existence of the paintings which everyone wants to see. So it was a great privilege to see the strange spotted horses of Pech Merle. But I found myself even more moved - haunted, even - by the hand prints. They are so vivid, so real: like a message winging its way across 20.000 years, a message that says Hello! I was here, and I'm just like you...  Almost equally striking were the small footprints, preserved in what was then mud, now rock, which are said to be those of an adolescent, a teenager - was s/he an assistant to the painter? Or someone who came to marvel at the latest artworks? I doubt we'll ever know: but incontrovertibly, s/he was there: a person who laughed and chatted and feared and hoped, just as we do today.

Just thinking about those hand and footprints brings back that sense of wonder, of a shiver in the fabric of time, of a strange connection.

So, as you might guess, ever since I went to Pech Merle, I've been looking for a way to incorporate all that into a book. I tried one way, which didn't work. And then I tried another way. This time, the cave is a very important part of the book: but it is set in 1942. Why? Because that was another important time in the long history of this part of south-western France. It's another era that I keep returning to, as do so many other writers: and why wouldn't we? My parents both served in the war. When I was a child, it seemed immeasurably distant to me, but in fact it was only a few years away, and although I wasn't particularly aware of it, I was living with some of its immediate consequences. And quite apart from all that - there are so many stories to be found in the huge history of the war: so much drama, so much of every kind of emotion - so much human nature, which is surely the basic stamping ground of every writer of fiction.

Well, so for various reasons to do with my story, I decided to base my story not on Pech Merle, but on Lascaux. I found lots to read about it, and its story fitted beautifully with the one I wanted to tell. I had already written a first and second draft, but I wanted to go there before writing what may or may not be the final draft.

And so here we are - the friends we are staying with, my husband and I, on a cool and cloudy day in May, outside the museum. I'm alert, not just to all I'm about to see, but also to how it will impact on my story. The first thing I notice is that the landscape is not quite how I had imagined it from the descriptions I've read, the pictures I've seen. It is less hilly. There is a hill - the hill where, somewhere, the cave lies hidden, and at the bottom of which the museum now stands. My imaginary village, Senlac, is more like some of the other villages we've already seen on the Dordogne and the Vézère - the one below, for instance - with hills and limestone cliffs closer to the river, and much more forest. This doesn't matter too much: my village and cave are loosely based on Lascaux: I'm not writing a guidebook, I'm writing fiction. Still, I store the observation away.

We walk up towards the museum. And then we are stopped in our tracks by this glorious wildflower meadow in front of it: a tapestry of  poppies, cornflowers, daisies, some kind of dark red giant clover, and grasses of all kinds - all of it rippling gracefully in the wind. Utterly beautiful. It's actually quite difficult to tear ourselves away and go inside for our guided tour, but that's what we're here for, so obviously, we do.

And actually, I think I'm going to stop there, and leave the museum itself for next time, because this post is already long enough. So I'll leave you with the flowers, and the museum, waiting to reveal its treasures.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Sue - can't wait! (Also can't wait for the book! Huzzah!)

Penny Dolan said...

Looking forward to hearing about the rest of your cave expedition nest month - and really enjoyed this walk to the meadow.

madwippitt said...

waaah ... a cliffhanger! how could you?! looking forward to part 2 !