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May 25 2011

Set in stone: cave paintings dig deep into our nature

The prehistoric pictures daubed on the walls of caverns in the Ardèche show the first stirrings of our artistic consciousness

A path leads from a village in the Cahors region of south-west France up a wooded, rocky hillside, commanding spectacular views of a deeply cut valley. Among the green pastures and woods in this region are overhangs and bluffs of limestone perforated with holes, like Swiss cheese – and it is one of these holes we are headed for.

At the end of the walk lies the cave of Pech-Merle, discovered by chance in the early 20th century and today one of the best places to see ice age cave paintings for yourself. The site is open to the public, and inside are wondrous natural formations framing truly transfixing paintings, the oldest of which are estimated to be about 25,000 years old.

That word "framing" is tricky. The most startling thing about visiting caves to see ancient art is the disorientating 3D world you enter. Caves, with their fantastical rock formations, are not like sketchbooks, canvases or even walls: as painting surfaces, the glistening mineral-encrusted bulges, cascades, pinnacles and concavities deep inside natural caverns are wild and intrusive and add a competing drama and meaning of their own. At Pech-Merle and other painted caves of the ice age, artworks of animals, dots and handprints interact enigmatically with their setting. Some paintings appear inside recesses and some under overhangs, and in one famous case in Pech-Merle, two horses have been painted on a natural surface that happens to be vertical and relatively flat – making them resemble a medieval wall painting.

In other words, entering a painted cave is a lot stranger than seeing photographs of cave art – it is a spatial experience, and the paintings haunt you not as disembodied images but as part of an eerie magical world of rock and darkness. This is one of the reasons Werner Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is worth catching in 3D while it's still showing in cinemas. Herzog's use of 3D is not just poetic in itself but also a genuinely unique opportunity to explore "inside" the Chauvet cave.

Only a few scientists will ever be allowed inside this majestic painted cavern, discovered in the 1990s, which has been decorated with masterly works of art even older than those in Pech-Merle. These are the most ancient figurative images ever found to date. Herzog has done the rest of us an immeasurable service in making not just its art but the physical environment of the cave – he even gets a perfume expert to describe its smell – accessible to the rest of us.

In fact, what struck me were the similarities to the painted caverns I have been inside at Pech-Merle and Cougnac. There is the same sense of the art floating into view from remote recesses, welling up out of flat panels of stone or vanishing into the mineral world. It is at once majestic and ordinary, for it is so plainly and simply the work of human hands.

Herzog's film is itself a humbling work of art that sends us back to the caves, to the remote world of the first stirrings of human consciousness. It is also an inspiration to visit the handful of places where you can see ice age paintings for yourself. These works are not some estranging, sublime spectacle but our own mirror image: the imprint of ourselves in nature. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 14 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams delves deep into cinema's foundations

Perhaps the human link is missing, but Werner Herzog's 3D documentary about prehistoric cave art asks new things of film

A few hours after Wim Wenders's somewhat unforgiving film about Pina Bausch unspooled in Berlin, so too did another 3D documentary – this one directed by Wenders's contemporary and sometime rival in the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, Werner Herzog. Though all his work tends to blur the line between fiction and reality, Herzog has been focusing on making documentaries for the last two decades – roughly parallelling the collapse in quality of his "acted" films (though the recent Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done may have arrested the decline). Cave of Forgotten Dreams is fully worthy to stand alongside Herzog's non-fiction masterworks, such as Grizzly Man, My Best Fiend and Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Its ostensible subject is the recently discovered Chauvet cave paintings, located in an underground chamber in the Ardèche in southern France. Hermetically sealed for millennia after a landslide buried the entrance, they are in preternaturally perfect condition, and all the more spectacular for being encased in staggeringly beautiful rock formations.

Herzog and his crew have a strictly limited time-frame to get their footage, are heavily restricted in terms of lighting, and are in any case confined to a narrow metal walkway constructed to link the numerous cave chambers. But Herzog is nothing if not used to adversity, and makes something of a virtue of all this in his gravelly voiceover, pointing up the difficulty with which the footage is obtained. Moreover, the bobbing torch-beams and minimal battery-lights are in fact perfect for illuminating the underground images, giving some sense of how the originals would have been seen when they were first made and helping the horses, lions and rhinoceroses almost surge off the cave wall.

But more than anything else, the restrictive conditions have a most unexpected result: they energise the 3D photography far beyond anything I've seen before. So far, film-makers have tended to go deep-focus and widescreen, packing the frame with oddities and angles or popping things into the viewers' eyeline. By necessity Herzog has to take the opposite position, and the effect is simply stunning. Rock deposits jump out as if they are filmed in extreme close-up, details of paintings are almost tangible as they trace the lines of jagged stones, and the labyrinthine caves stretch away from the camera with dizzying depth.

All that's missing from Cave of Forgotten Dreams is what you might call the human dimension. Herzog likes to grapple with the extremes of consciousness and experience and, despite that fantastic title, he fails to make much headway here. Not that he doesn't try: in his voiceover he offers some wonderfully Teutonic observations about the 30,000-year-old paintings – "Are we crocodiles who look back into an abyss of time?" – but perhaps the living material, the scientists and archaeologists, aren't as responsive as he'd like. His pitch is to infer that dreams infect us all, and are the link that spans the 30,000 years to the original cave-painters. Only one paleontologist, swathed in reindeer hide, seems to take it on board – but then you realise he's simply modelling how ice-agers would have dressed, nothing that Tony Robinson wouldn't have done.

Be that as it may, Herzog has conjured up something magical here, perhaps able to speak for itself in a way that makes his customary philosophising unnecessary. It's almost like watching the reinvention of the cinematic medium. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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