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Cave Art

The discovery of pre-historic decorated caves in western Europe transformed the way we think about the development of art. The earliest known evidence of human artistic endeavor, the awe-inspiring paintings, dramatic engravings and small, delicate sculptures of animals and humans found in these caves still hold a unique power and fascination, more than a century after they were first discovered. In this book, internationally renowned expert on prehistoric art Jean Clottes explores the origins of art and creativity. He takes the reader on a guided tour of 85 caves and rock shelters, many of which are not open to the public, revealing the extraordinary beauty of the works of art within them.

Cave Art features more than 300 works from the Paleolithic period, made between 35,000 and 11,000 years ago, presented in geographical and chronological order.This comprehensive, accessible introduction to prehistoric art includes such spectacular works as the famous horses of Lascaux, the buffalo in the Altamira cave in Spain and the ivory carving of a woman‘s face found at Brassempouy in the south of France, as well as examples from less well-known sites. A wonderful range of animals is presented, from cave bears to reindeer, as well as mysterious abstract signs and schematic representations of human beings. Examples of portable art and sculpture are also included. While most of the caves described in the book are European, Cave Art also includes examples of open-air rock art made after the last ice age at sites around the world.

With an unparalleled selection of images, Cave Art offers a unique guided tour of the earliest expressions of human creativity. Each work in Cave Art is illustrated by a color photograph, and accompanied by a clear, vivid explanatory text. A concise introduction tells the story of the discovery of the caves, and gives a clear outline of current knowledge, research and debate on the subject of prehistoric art. The book also includes a chronology, maps of the main caves and sites, a glossary and a list of sites that can be visited.

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  1. R. Hardy "Rob Hardy" says

    A Gorgeous Review of the Most Ancient Art If you are interested in art history or just love looking at art, you’d certainly want to look at the earliest examples of art made by humans. You might conceivably buy enough air miles to see all the important works of western art, but many of the artworks shown in _Cave Art_ (Phaidon) by Jean Clottes you are never going to see, and the book’s expansive and generous photographs are as close as you are going to get. You’d have to be an expert caver to get to some of the paintings shown here, and even so, many of them are in caves that are now closed to all but the most-degreed researchers. There are so many images here that one might think that there is a large store to draw from, but given that they range from 11,000 to 35,000 years old, it is amazing that the caves, always vulnerable to damage by water, time, and human activity, have preserved the treasures. Indeed, we may be getting a skewed, pinhole view of a larger artistic endeavor; if these artists were working during all those millennia on the outside, creating works on wood, sand, or hides, those works are long gone. The cave art was simply the best preserved, and sealed deep in the earth, it didn’t start coming to light again until the nineteenth century.Clottes is an authority to trust in displaying the most important examples of this art. An archaeologist with plenty of books and papers to his credit, he had a leading role in the study of the underwater Cosquer cave discovered in 1985 and the Chauvet Cave discovered in 1991. He summarizes the interpretations that have been put forward to explain these pictures, but it is safe to say that none of them clears the mysteries away. Why are there so few plants here, for instance? What do the abstract paintings here mean? There are dots at random, dots in groups, dots in designs that don’t look like anything else, and there are stripes and wavy lines. This book is full mostly of photographs of cave paintings, but there are also some decorated objects; why should this portable art be far more varied, showing birds, snakes, or fawns that don’t show up often on the walls, and also showing humans who seldom appear on the walls in comparison with the numbers of beasts? Where are all the people? Many of the paintings here are breathtaking in the way they use minimal lines to bring out a thoroughly realistic beast; many of them are simply primitive (and no less powerful for that). Clottes is not blind to defects in his appreciation of the artwork: ten simple, skillful lines show an animal that is obviously a weasel, but he calls the head “somewhat botched.” Among the most easily recognizable forms here are hand stencils. The artist would place his hand on the wall and blow or spit a solution of pigment (hematite for red, charcoal for black) onto the hand and wall, leaving a fully familiar five finger imprint. Strangely, many of the fingers in such stencils are not complete, leading some to speculate that there were medical conditions, accidents, or even religious mutilations affecting the artists; a more likely guess seems to be that the hands were making some sort of hunting signal.Having these handsome photographs displayed together makes it easy to admire the skill of the artists and the range of their interests. It also has to be a substitute for ever seeing some of the paintings first hand. Only a few of the caves are open to the public; there is a list here of caves you can visit. Some of the photographs here show the art intact where it is intact no longer; an aurochs drawn in the clay of the La Clotilde Cave in Spain was drawn over by some visitor after 1971. Well-meaning cleaners have cleaned off parts of the paintings. And sometimes just visiting them defaces them. The famous Lascaux Cave discovered in 1940 was open to visitors afterwards, but had to be closed in 1963 simply because the carbon dioxide breathed out by visitors was degrading the pigments. Even with the cave closed, the artwork which did just fine for so many millennia risks being attacked by mold. It is a treat to have a spectacular big book of photographs of the pristine artwork, the unity of themes illustrating what Clottes calls “the longest artistic tradition humankind has ever known.” One page after another stimulates wonder at the ancientness of one of our specie’s admirable traits, the artistic impulse.

  2. Vladimir Makarov says

    Cave Art by by Jean Clottes Excellent book, plenty of magnificent photograps, many of which have never been published before. The brief review of European prehistory is given for those interested in the subject. Highly recommended, I’ve read this book non-stop.

  3. William Mixon says

    an artistic cave-art book Jean Clottes’s book is the ideal coffee-table book of Paleolithic cave art. The covers are an eighth of an inch thick, and the paper is about as thick as the cover on a typical mass-market paperback. The whole thing weighs four and a half pounds. There are a short introductory text followed by nearly 250 color photographs, mostly of painted or engraved art found deep in caves. The arrangement is chronological, with emphasis on Chauvet, Lascaux, and Niaux caves as representative of their periods, although many other caves are represented. Most of the photos are at least a half-page in size, and many cover a full two-page spread, which works well because the binding allows the book to open nearly flat anywhere. Each photograph is accompanied by a long paragraph of description, including a statement of scale. Still, I regret the customary lack of anything for scale in photos of Paleolithic art; reading that a bull in Lascaux is 395 centimeter long is not the same as seeing that for oneself.–Bill Mixon

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