Feature

Scenes From the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

With the use of imaging technology, the Lascaux cave paintings of southwestern France can be more precisely replicated

The Field Museum, ChicagoThrough Sept. 8

This is probably the closest we’ll get to viewing “the most celebrated Paleolithic cave paintings in art history,” said Chris Miller in Newcity. The 20,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings of southwestern France were open to public tours for 15 years last century. But in 1963, alarmed by the deterioration caused by foot traffic and carbon dioxide, the French government closed the caves to all but a few artists and scholars. Fortunately, a group of those insiders recently found a way to use imaging technology to precisely replicate the caves’ complex surfaces on fiberglass sheets that could then receive painters’ copies of the original images. Seeing five such panels, illuminated by simulated torchlight and arranged approximately as they appear in Lascaux, “offers an experience of the paintings entirely different from printed and TV or computer reproductions.” Yet the precision of the copies is limited by the human element. Did the artisan who replicated each image get the pigments right? Did he capture the original’s intensity?

The sophistication of the images is striking either way, with two in particular demonstrating the original artist’s “far-from-primitive eye,” said Mark Yost in The Wall Street Journal. Crossed Bison depicts two animals positioned so that one appears closer than the other—“the one on the right is painted on a section of the cave that juts out, giving the impression that [the animal is] coming toward you.” You can also see examples of early stabs at perspective drawing, a skill that experts used to think didn’t blossom fully until the Renaissance. The intent of the ancient artists may never be fully known. Yet “while the shadowy caves of Lascaux house many mysteries,” this show “still enlightens.”

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