The Cave Painters
The cave paintings found at Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, have puzzled and fascinated experts and laypersons alike since they were first discovered. In The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists, Gregory Curtis draws the reader into the world of cave art and all of its incredible wonders. The cave site at Altamira was first discovered in the late nineteenth century, and the site at Lascaux was discovered in 1940. Many exemplary studies have been published about them over the years.
The cave paintings of southern France and northern Spain date back to the Paleolithic period, which stretches as far back as 40,000 b.c.e. In 1876, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola visited the Altamira cave and noticed some paintings on a wall. He returned in 1879 with his daughter, and it was she who came upon a grouping of ceiling paintings of bison. His discovery at Altamira changed Sautuola forever. Curtis suggests that this was “the first time we know of that an artist from the distant Stone Age touched the soul of a modern person.” With this discovery, Sautuola attempted to persuade the academic community of the importance of the paintings. He met with ridicule, and experts in the field did not authenticate the Paleolithic art that he had discovered until the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, Sautuola died in 1888 and, therefore, did not live to see his ideas vindicated. Prejudice and preconceived notions of what art is led the academic community in general to recoil at the idea that anyone from the Paleolithic period could have created paintings worthy of respect. It would take time and the bold leap of thought from some remarkable individuals for the cave paintings of southern France and northern Spain to receive their just recognition.
One of the most important French scholars to study cave paintings is Henri Breuil. He was one of the first experts to investigate the site at Lascaux, France. Three boys came upon the cave paintings there, encountering extraordinary depictions of horses, bison, deer, and other colorful animals. Breuil was made aware of this dramatic discovery, and he went to work surveying the area. He found fragments of bones and other items that certainly made it look like humans had occupied the caves. With great flair, Breuil wrote about what he saw and what he thought it all meant to the world of archaeology, anthropology, and art history. He was accused of “romanticizing” the cave paintings and those early humans who had created them. His embellishments made for good reading and helped to popularize the discovery, but he was criticized for some of his dramatizations and inaccurate conclusions. For his time though, Breuil was one of the leading authorities on cave art, and he wrote several important texts on the subject. Because he was a priest, he became known as the “pope of prehistory.”
Curtis breathes life into The Cave Painters by including fascinating and unusual scholars, such as Breuil, who made it their life’s work to understand cave art. In addition to Sautuola and Breuil, some of the towering figures who played pivotal roles in studying cave art are Émile Cartailhac, Jean Clottes, Annette Laming-Emperaire, André Leroi-Gourhan, and Max Raphael. The obsessiveness of some of these characters is the stuff of legend. The academic feuds and the naked ambition of many of these great thinkers add an intriguing texture to Curtis’s story.
With his first book, Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo (2003), Curtis established himself as an author who knows how to write both informatively and engagingly. He opens The Cave Painters with an introduction, “The Naked Cave Men,”...
(The entire section is 1531 words.)