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The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists

The Cave Painters is a vivid introduction to the spectacular cave paintings of France and Spain—the individuals who rediscovered them, theories about their origins, their splendor and mystery.

Gergory Curtis makes us see the astonishing sophistication and power of the paintings and tells us what is known about their creators, the Cro-Magnon people of some 40,000 years ago. He takes us through various theories—that the art was part of fertility or hunting rituals, or used for religious purposes, or was clan mythology—examining the ways interpretations have changed over time.

Rich in detail, personalities, and history, The Cave Painters is above all permeated with awe for those distant humans who developed—perhaps for the first time—both the ability for abstract thought and a profound and beautiful way to express it.

From the Trade Paperback edition.The Cave Painters is a vivid introduction to the spectacular cave paintings of France and Spain—the individuals who rediscovered them, theories about their origins, their splendor and mystery.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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  1. R. Hardy "Rob Hardy" says

    Trying to Understand the First Great Paintings They are among the most familiar paintings in the world, and they are also among the oldest. Within caves that are still being discovered in France and Spain are paintings and engravings on the rocks, some of them 30,000 years old. There are some 350 such caves, a vast amount of art that is simultaneously evocative of an older time and also immediate in its appeal. After touring one of the most famous such caves, Lascaux, Picasso himself was humbled, and said, “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.” One of the things we have learned, however, is that the paintings are far older than that, and we have learned such facts because of improvements in basic research. In _The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists_ (Knopf), Gregory Curtis has given an overview of much else we know about these strange and beautiful works, and also how much people have speculated about them. There is so much we cannot know about the people who made them that the cave paintings are sort of like a Rorschach test for each era that views them.One thing that experts in prehistory and art novices alike agree on is that the paintings are impressive and beautiful. Most people are familiar with the animals depicted in the paintings, and overwhelmingly, animals are the subjects the painters favored. It is interesting what they do not show, and it is impossible to say why they didn’t think parts of their world should not be commemorated on the walls. They show no stars nor sun nor moon, for instance, but we know that prehistoric people watched the sky closely. They show no landscapes, and the animals float untethered by trees, bushes, or flowers. The inexplicable concentration on bison and cows, as well as animals that are long gone from the area like lions and hyenas, is so puzzling that although there have been many explanations for the subject matter of the works, there is still no grand theory of what the paintings mean. The most recent interpretation has been that the paintings were done by tribal shamans who were reproducing their visions from some sort of magical trance state. A critic declared the interpretation “shamaniacery” and huffed, “If we believe that the Paleolithic art in the caves is based on the trance, we should pack our bags and go home.” That sort of backbiting is typical in interpretation controversies.We are, however, getting better about seeing the paintings and doing fundamental interpretation, even if we don’t get the big picture. It is amazing that André Leroi-Gourhan, a giant of post-war French archaeology, used punch cards to code the figures as to type, proximity to other figures, location, and so on, in order to find patterns for the work. (He was also the first to insist that if a site had to be dug up, it made little sense to dig shafts downward rather than to skim successive broad layers all the way down.) He came up with a now minor hypothesis that the figures showed a religious system of male and female animal figures and abstract signs, but his punch cards were a step into how the research is done today. Nowadays, artists take clear plastic into the cave and use one to reproduce just the red sections, one for just the black, one for the rock colors, and so on; these can be manipulated in a program like Photoshop, and the results allow thoughtful speculation about how many artists worked on a figure, which strokes were made first, and so on. That’s just the most recent way to look at these fabulous works. We are bound to get better at seeing them, since we have been trying for only 200 years, and Curtis’s admiring book makes it clear that for good reasons, we are never going to stop trying.

  2. Stephen A. Haines says

    From a child’s discovery Although the earliest recognised Palaeolithic cave art was found in northern Spain, it is France where the greatest attention has been given to these enigmatic images. Gregory Curtis has visited many of the caves, and the impression he’s taken away from those stygian galleries is expressively imparted in this book. Retaining a sense of wonder over time is one sign of a good science writer. Add to that sense a desire to explain both his feelings and the science struggling to understand how and why those graphics came to be and you have the makings of a fine book. Curtis is both expressive and informative in his presentation.Curtis lines out the history of the Altamira find in northern Spain and the subsequent discoveries in France carefully and clearly. He has a nice feeling for the people who discovered Lascaux, Chauvet and the many other sites. Ancient caves being what they are, hidden by rockfalls, shrubbery or forests, children play a significant role in these accounts. Altamira, he reminds us, was entered by a father and daughter, but the parent sought artefacts on the floor, while the daughter was inquisitive enough to glance at the ceiling: “Look, Papa! Oxen!”. Her “Papa”, Sr de Sautuola, would prove the first of many to be embroiled in lengthy disputes over his daughter’s discovery.Disputes are the norm in archaeology, and those surrounding cave art may be among the most acrimonious. Altamira’s cave paintings were first considered modern fakes and the exchanges grew so heated that de Sautuola was worn to death by the struggle. As more examples of hidden art came into view, a figure rose in France who was beset by problems of his own. The Abbe Henri Breuil, whose long career in the field would lead to him being dubbed “The Pope of Prehistory”, established many standard practices for how to deal with the paintings and engravings on rocks and cave walls. He’s now known for conceiving the idea that the paintings were a form of “hunting magic”. Later scholars, chiefly for lack of visible evidence have dismissed that idea. Few of the painted animals are wounded.The objections to Breuil’s concept led archaeologists to turn away from “interpreting” cave art, and attention was given instead to classifying the images. Any number of assessments of image type, positioning and other relationships were developed. Curtis relates the efforts of a man little heard of today, Max Rafferty, who conceived a “structural” thesis into which cave images might be fit. “Structuralism” led to some bizarre arrangement ideas, but it boosted interest in the minds of those making the paintings. If the painters went to such pains to arrange the images, Curtis asks, what was their motive in doing so? What did the arrangements mean to the artists? Is it possible to derive what impelled them at all?The author is careful throughout the book to show that evidence for motive behind the paintings is impossible to determine. However, he uses the career of cave painting investigator Jean Clottes to explain how far science has come since the discovery of Altamira in 1879. Clottes, collaborating with South African archaeologist David Lewis Williams, a specialist in San rock art, co-authored a work proposing shamans were the instigators or actual artists of the cave images. As Curtis notes, the theory generated a storm of controversy. For one thing, “interpretation” had fallen into disrepute. For another, the idea of “art” as the product of drug or exertion-inspired imagery seemed to “demean” the art in some fashion. Curtis is hesitant about accepting the thesis, but notes that it has the virtue of relying on recent studies of consciousness. He withholds his blanket approval, but recognises it both for the scientific underpinning and Clottes’ reputation as a careful scholar. Such a figure wouldn’t take up such a concept without good reason.There’s a final element in Curtis’ explanations and history – the enigmatic scratchings and engravings scattered about the caves’ walls. The one element lacking in all the serious conjectures and disputes about the cave paintings is humour. Even the earliest humans with enough mental capacity to conceive and execute the cave images must have had idle moments and off-beat thoughts. Some of that, he proposes, have found form in some of the less serious imagery on the rocks. More significantly, he concludes, is that the images reflect a stable social order. Whether that society was forming the basis for later, strongly hierarchical societies we developed will likely never be known. The evidence, however, does point to communities holding values and standards. Clearly, the cultures creating the paintings endured. The stretches of millennia and distances across which the themes and particular animals were repeated are testimony to that persistence. Was cave art, as a portrayal of the relationship of the human and…

  3. Alexandro C. Telander "Alex C. Telander" says

    The Cave Painters THE CAVE PAINTERS: PROBING THE MYSTERIES OF THE WORLD’S FIRST ARTISTS BY GREGORY CURTIS: It was a special day when Gregory Curtis was vacationing in France with his family and entered some famous caves. When he gazed upon the unique cave paintings for the first time, this book was born. The Cave Painters is a two-part story: one small part the story of the rise of Cro-Magnon, modern humans, and their painting abilities; the rest the history of those people who first discovered the paintings and how they proved their finds to the world.In the first chapter, Curtis starts right at the beginning with the first non-ape hominid to evolve and make their way across Africa as a being that would one day be known as human. He then takes the reader on a journey evolving through different generations of the Homo genus up to Cro-Magnon, better known as Homo sapiens. Curtis also discusses the merits of whether the Neanderthals were “wiped out” by the arrival of Cro-Magnon, leaning more towards no, since the population numbers that are being discussed here are in little more than the thousands. These two different groups of people would rarely have had any contact with each other at all. Nevertheless, it is clear that Curtis has gone all out with the research, making sure that it is clear and up to date, and to put forth multiple ideas that are currently supported, and not just the one he supports.While the reader is left wanting much more in this area, this is sadly where Curtis essentially leaves it, now taking up the history of those special people who discovered the cave paintings of Western Europe. Though in some ways this is just as moving and tumultuous a story as that of the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. These people, for the most part French since the largest number of caves with paintings are located in France, have their story told starting in the nineteenth century. Some were shunned and mocked and even had their careers ruined by others when they told the world of these cave paintings that were over ten thousand years old. Curtis takes the research right up to the present day with what is currently being done with the cave paintings; how probably the most famous caves at Lascaux have been recreated in a separate building due to the deterioration of the paintings by the large number of visitors.The Cave Painters is an incredible story where the reader first learns a detailed evolutionary history of humanity, and then a detailed biographical history of the famous discoveries of specific cave paintings throughout Europe. Recently released in paperback, the book features numerous copies and illustrations of the cave paintings to aid Curtis’s discussion, as well as a selection of colored plates. It is a short book that will educate the reader greatly.[…]

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