This week’s dream
Visiting cave-art country in southern France
To view cave art in person is to enter “a wide-open playpen for the imagination,” said Paul Rutz in TheSmartSet.com. As a painter, I’ve long believed there’s no substitute for seeing artwork in person, which is why I arranged to travel to Dordogne, France, last year to visit three prehistoric art-filled caves: La Grotte du Sorcier, Les Combarelles, and the famous Font-de-Gaume—the only cave with polychrome Paleolithic paintings that still hosts regular tours. “Against crushingly powerful odds,” the images in the caves have lasted tens of thousands of years, inspiring scholars of the past century or so to speculate about their meaning and purpose. In truth, nobody knows, and “that’s one of the greatest attractions of cave art”: Whatever interpretation you come up with is nearly as valid as an expert’s.
At Font-de-Gaume, located near a “way too quaint” village called Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, we had only half an hour. Because photographs are not allowed, I scribbled furiously in my sketch pad as clusters of animals emerged from deep shadow when the guide’s handheld lamp passed over them. Before paint was applied, some surfaces had apparently been scraped flat by the ancient artists: “sophisticated craftsmen indeed—or craftswomen.” In many places, the 15,000-year-old paintings were “ghosts of their former colorful glory,” but a few images still popped, in bold blacks, browns, and oranges. Les Combarelles, a much deeper cave, was more disorienting, but it rewarded our spelunking with 600 etchings—of abstract shapes, big mammals, and sex organs.
So what did such art mean to its creators? Some scholars argue it was religious in nature. Others say it was the graffiti of adventurous adolescents. “Perhaps asking historical questions misses the point,” though. The best reason to see it, I decided, is to feel what we have in common with people long dead. Standing where the ancient painters once stood, “I could stretch my arms and feel why a given bison painting was this tall, and its head this far off the floor.” For a few minutes, “I was a receiver picking up faint communication across mindboggling distance, a little like someone on another planet recording a distorted radio signal from Earth thousands of years from now.”
At Hôtel Le Cro-Magnon aux Eyzies (hotel-cromagnon.com), doubles start at $105.