Tuesday, July 22, 2008


This may be my favorite drawing ever.

I encountered it on the wall of a dark cave at Pech Merle in the Pyrenees.

20,000 years ago, humans were struggling for survival in a hostile ice age world. A desperate, hungry man prepared himself to hunt the dreaded wooly mammoth-- a lumbering beast that weighed ten tons, with tusks 15 feet long. The man's only weapons were a pointed stick, a rock... and this drawing.

He captured the mammoth with a line on the wall, and with a bold red color he struck a killing blow. Once... twice... twenty-seven times.

Other creatures were bigger and stronger, but only humans could give their hopes and terrors abstract form. In such dark places art was born.

This drawing contains the seeds of everything that would follow:

  • A design as beautiful as any modern abstract painting
  • A magical power over his enemies that was as illusory-- and a courage that was as genuine-- as that gained from the most persuasive religious art
  • A message as passionate and sincere as the content of any art form to come.
If this artist survived the ensuing hunt, the subtle hand that created this masterpiece (notice how the artist was careful to get the contours of the mammoth's hump exactly right) would soon be gouging and hacking through matted fur and thick hide so his family could feed on the bloody carcass and survive for another day.

There was a time when humanity was just one of nature's less promising experiments competing for survival. This ancient artist held on through an existence that you or I would consider intolerable so that today, trained artists can sit on cushions in air conditioned comfort and make pictures using highly sophisticated tools. But with all these advantages, I doubt you will ever see a more lovely drawing.


Harley said...

Indeed, some of the finest art I have seen has been cave art. I think people often like the novelty of it being so old, but write the art off as primitive, without looking closer to see the elegance and skill. These were REAL ARTISTS.

Lovely post.

SpaceJack said...

It's a sad state of affairs when the avant-garde has regressed to a level below what cave people were doing.

Mike Marinos said...

I have a reproduction of this drawing on my wall and what I find haunting about this drawing is that it makes me realise that the experience of being human, which Doug has nicely summarised here, hasn't changed - not one bit. There is no human "progress". Whoever made this drawing had a full and complete experience of being alive.

David Apatoff said...

Harley, I agree. The full gamut of humanity is there in this art.

Spacejack, it's not just the avant-garde. For me, this art is more pure and legitimate than much of the traditional, non-abstract art as well.

Mike, my heart stopped when I first saw this drawing on the cave wall. I have not seen it reproduced anywhere else before; it is usually upstaged by the art at more famous caves such as Lascaux, Alta Mira and Chauvet. But I am delighted that it found its way to you,and that you share my appreciation for it.

dfernetti said...

It's a great drawing... but how do you know it was made "before" the hunt? Perhaps it was made by the prod caveman after he whacked the Mammoth, telling his friends, over the dinner of real big steaks, "and this is the beast, and we hit it here, and here, and here, and then came Oorg and the beast stomped over him, like this little red stain".

David Apatoff said...

dfernetti, anthropologists and sociologists have devoted a great deal of attention to that precise question. They have studied totem and animistic roles of art in "primitive" tribes in the 20th history, and they believe that these drawings were part of the hunting process, used to summon courage, enhance the chances of success, and communicate with the spirit of the animal in the hunt. The archaeologists have established that prehistoric people jabbed these drawings with sticks and spears, and threw things at them as if they were attacking the animal itself.

dfernetti said...

I see... maybe the spear jabbing and stone throwing were a primitive form of art criticism?

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

There are a few caves which also have more abstract patterns painted inside. This brought certain scientists to the theory that it didn't have to do with the hunt, but it had to do with the sjaman/shaman (no idea how to spell it in English). The abstract patterns have remarkable similarities to the patterns we see when our eyes are closed but exposed to certain light. What they think is that some of the paintings are actually the shaman trying to tell the clan what he saw in trance state.

I seem to remember, though, that in the documentary I heard this from (I think it was BBC's How Art Made The World) the cave with the abstract pattern shown was out in the open. Which would be useful if trying to communicate to clanmembers. However, most cavepaintings are in the dark, and the theory here is that these paintings were made before the hunt, as a place the soul of the soon-to-be-killed animal to go to.

Anonymous said...

thank you for pointing out, especially, the things which this painting has brought to our world. its not easy for me to think beyond so far. i was impressed; it is truly remarkeable. i love, i think, that the victory of the mammoth was so monumental that it deserved art. i imagine too, this man must have somehow outsmarted the beast and in that way, glorifies the human mind. its complexity.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved rock art. Here in Australia we have some of the oldest in the world. It blows my mind. The skill and tenderness and concentration as you point out but also that the line records the motion of a living hand, evidence of a single humans existence all that time ago. Artists haven't changed at all.

Tony Shasteen said...

It makes me wonder... if this man were alive today, would he be making art, or would he be scribbling down a "plan of attack" for his inside sales team? Was this art, or the pre-historic equivalent of a white board?

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin, the story of how cave paintings moved from representational painting to those abstract patterns over thousands of years is a fascinating, mind-boggling story. I have had the pleasure of meeting with Jean Clottes, the world's leading expert on the shaman theory and I highly recommend his books. I would love to write about it, but I don't think we know enough yet to speak with certainty, and besides I am not bright enough to cope with such cosmic topics.

Thank you, Sarah. It's good to hear from you again.

Gingatao, Australia has some of my favorite rock art, and I have shown pictures of it on this blog in the past.

Tony-- excellent! I fear you may be right!

claymonster said...

Beautifully stated.
The drawing is quite moving and I very much appreciate your take on it.

However, I have to say Tony's possible explanation is viable, as well as pretty dang funny.

I would, however, rather look at this drawing than any PowerPoint presentation I've ever seen, that's for sure.