Cezac 4, Pech-Merle, Art

Cezac Travel Blog

 › entry 26 of 29 › view all entries

Since neither of us has ever seen prehistoric cave paintings, Stephen and I decided to go to Pech-Merle, a cave discovered in the 1920’s by a couple of teenage boys. The route to the cave, beyond Cahors, became more and more wild the nearer we got to Pech-Merle, following the narrow road through holes blasted out of the craggy escarpments of rock. The River Cele twisted through a steep gorge on our right.

Considering that the paintings were done between 30,000 and 12,000 BC, they are astonishingly well preserved.   The caves are damp and the paintings, really drawings, were done with the charcoal residue from burnt torches, with no oil or fixative used at all.  Perhaps it’s the darkness.  In order to continue this preservation, the family of the two boys, still the owners and managers of the cave, allow only two hours of light per day on the paintings themselves, and forbid any photography or video.  They also limit the number of visitors to 700 per day in an attempt to keep destruction by carbon dioxide to a minimum.

The themes are primarily animal, with bison and mammoths the most prevalent. There are at least two instances when the artist used the natural contour of the rock as inspiration to draw a bison or a horse on this surface, creating a sculptural, three-dimensional effect; perhaps the first site-specific art. It is direct and beautiful. The simplicity of line shows us so much. While some of the work is believed to be hieroglyphic in nature, apparently intending to communicate specific ideas, most of it seems to me to be descriptive of their quotidian dependence on animals. Nowhere did I see any images of weapons or any images of war. Then the guide led us to an engraved figure of the head of a bear which was done much more recently, about 12,000 years ago, but still before the Bronze or Iron Ages, so I asked him what tool the artist used. A flint arrowhead, harder than the rock of the cave walls, was his answer. The bear head did look more modern in a sense, more specific and detailed than the bison and mammoths, but still in fact Stone Age art.

Here is art before there was Art.  Here was evidence that someone was representing or interpreting his or her world and sharing it with others.  It is theorized that many of the drawings in this cave along with one in a cave 40 kilometers away might have been done by the same person.  I was moved by the thought that someone from the Stone Age had the time and motivation to make these paintings when food, heat, and shelter must have been such overwhelming concerns.

Rocamadour juts out of a cliff on the way to the Dordogne. It’s a big tourist mecca but deservedly fascinating. We spent a few hours there after lunch. We found there a small, twelfth century black, wood madonna and child in the Chapel of Notre Dame. We’ve probably seen at least a hundred Madonna sculptures and a few hundred paintings on the same theme in the last five months. This one was unique to my eye. Primitive and refined at the same time, it looked like it came out of Africa, or maybe Asia, rather than Europe.  What artistic urge led the artist so far afield from the European tradition of the time?   Why is it so revered by the people in this town and its visitors that the large votive candle rack needs an exhaust hood to vent the heat from the hundreds of candles? I thought about the cave painter.

It was 6:00 PM, and although I was really ready to head home, one more stop was necessary, Souillac.  It wasn’t that far away, but because of a false start and an unforeseen bridge closure at the Dordogne River, we didn’t arrived until 7:00 PM. Stephen had had enough of old, Romanesque churches, but I was on a quest to see the real “Isaiah", the sculpture of the prophet that stands beside the portal of the Abbey Church of Souillac that I had seen countless reproductions of in art history books, one of which had hung on a wall in my house.

We walked all around the church and found no sculptured portals. I was getting nervous. Then Stephen opened the door and we stepped into a portico that had photos and explanations of the artwork around the portal and on the tympanum. But where was it?  Then we opened another door and entered the church to see two people leaning their backs against the last pew and looking up over our heads at the doorway behind us. We closed the door and turned around and sure enough, there stood the prophet Isaiah, legs in a fourth position, body twisted to face us, hands lifted to touch the door frame,  his face and head angled and ready to shout the good news about a messiah. Not only my prophet, but also a column with one side filled with a surreal depiction of the story of Abraham and Isaac, including an angel plunging head first, down from heaven and offering a lamb to substitute for the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. The other side is piled up with intertwined bodies, some embracing, some struggling, all touchingly human... perhaps an evocation of the sins and struggles of humanity.

Even though I am not religious in any conventional sense, this sculpture touches me deeply.    A few months ago in Italy, I found myself getting impatient with religious art that seemed excessive and even narcissistic.  But now my faith is restored by this work concerning itself with human feelings and ideas...ideas of sin, redemption, fear, love, and obedience.  In addition, I resonate more with art that is part of people’s lives, whether in an ancient church that is still used as the local parish church, or in a town square that people frequent every day. While I have experienced some works of art in museums that touched me deeply, I still feel more personally connected to art which lives in the world where people live.

So art lives, whether like cave art it concerns itself with the physical world, or like my favorite religious art portrays us at the height of our humanity, or like much of the art today examines art itself as pure form, color, sound, or movement.   Whether it’s in caves, churches, museums, theaters, or in town squares, people have made many millions of artworks over the years. Some of it touches me deeply; some of it astounds me intellectually;  some of it just seems like decoration; and some of it just annoys me. Nevertheless, whether it is making music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre, photography, film, or whatever, people have always had to do it, or at least to have it in their world.
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
photo by: jsbuck1