Sunday, June 05, 2011

Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave Paintings

This weekend I went to see a French documentary about the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave paintings titled Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film was written, directed, and narrated by the renowned German director Werner Herzog.

The film opens with a 3-D arial perspective as the camera soars over a French vineyard and approaches the Pont-d'Arc, a natural bridge that spans the Ardèche River near the town of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. The Pont-d'Arc bridge and the nearby Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave are located in the rugged Ardèche département of southern France.

The camera then leads the viewers to the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave where they are introduced to the earliest-known cave paintings in the world, some of which are perhaps 32,000 years old.

The film explains that the cave has hidden for millennia in a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River. The original entrance was sealed-off, possibly by falling rocks, so people who enter the cave today have to enter from a hole above the cave. The cave was discovered---or more accurately rediscovered---in 1994 by three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom the cave is named.

Here are some images from the Chauvet Pont-d'Arc Cave. The paintings on the walls of the cave depict hundreds of ice-age animals: bison, horses, mammoths, lions, leopards, panthers, bears, owls,  hyenas, and rhinos. At least thirteen species of animals are depicted, some of which are now extinct.

The paleolithic artists etched the walls or incorporated the existing contours of the cave walls in order to give the animals a semblance of three dimensionality. The artists frequently sketched the outlines of a series of animals behind other animals to capture the sense of large herds, as in the painting of horses (above) and these rhinos.

Unfortunately, with the possible exception of one partial figure of the lower part of a woman's body, the ancient artists failed to depict themselves!

There is evidence that a written code may have been used by these palaolithic people.

The U.K. Mail (1-21-11) explains:

For example, a tusk was used to indicate a mammoth. This, known as a synecdoche, is common to pictographic languages.

This appeared to prove that our ancestors, even at this early date, were considering how to use abstract symbols rather than realistic pictures.

The cave was inhabited at different times by the now-extinct cave bear and Cro-Magnon man.

Herzog's impressionistic 3-D film was beautiful but didn't really provide too much information. The film might have benefited from more expert commentary. The 3-D effects were exiting, but I found it strenuous to watch for a long time.

Apparently, 3-D films can cause eye-strain. The Voice of America (2-21-10) report:

[A] study at the University of California Berkeley found that 3-D movies can cause eye strain.

Normally, when we look at things nearby, our eyes converge. They do the opposite when we look at things in the distance. Martin Banks, a professor of optometry at Berkeley, says 3-D doesn't allow our eyes to follow the rules because we're focusing on things both far and near at the same time. That's called "vergence accommodation conflict."

MSNBC has also published an article about how 3-D effects some movie-goers titled "Why watching 'Avatar' can feel like eating bad mushrooms" (2-8-10).

The French Ministry of Culture provides an information site about the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave paintings that includes an interactive map with photos. National Geographic (August 2001) has an abstract of an article about the cave titled "France's Magical Ice Age Art." The New Yorker (6-29-08) has an article titled "First Impressions" about the cave paintings. I enjoyed the New Yorker article the most.

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