We (my better half and I) have just returned from a well-earned respite from Nothing, touring the Dordogne area of France.
For history, scenery, food, wine, and sheer beauty, the area is hard to beat. One just needs to wander off a tiny road winding its way through overhanging trees, steep cliffs alongside rivers and into an even smaller road that leads to a medieval village that a film set couldn’t do justice to. 12th century mixed with 16th century houses, gathered around a church that was there from the beginnings of Christianity (and often built on a pre-Christianity house of prayer) and its attendant chateau/fortress.
Yet what really blew my mind were the prehistoric drawings on caves that are as plentiful as pubs in an English countryside. (OK, that may not be strictly true, and neither is the correlation… but the idea is there). Almost all of the original drawings are no longer accessible to the public, but even the reconstructions, like those at Lascaux, are fascinating. It was when visiting one cave that still contains the original paintings of some 14,000 years ago – Grotte de Font-de-Gaume – that I was struck by the thought of the artist/s that had rendered the sketches that the guide picked out with her torch.
Imagine. With all the dangers from animals and other humans, the hunter-gatherers spent time in caves in order to record what they saw. These were the “artists” of their time. Were they honoured and admired by their families and others around them? Were they commissioned to draw what they witnessed? Did they teach others to draw?
All those questions are frivolous compared to the realisation that people way back had the urge to etch what they witnessed. Bison, deer, horses… Who they did it for and why is speculation; but the fact that they did it proves that art is as old as mankind and perhaps as old as language.
We have come a long way from rendering nature as it is. With time, visual art became more and more an interpretation of how the artist sees what he does. It is, though, the same urge as it was thousands of years ago: to record what the eye sees for the edification of contemporaries and for those who come after. A few days ago, I felt as if that anonymous person in that cave had painted for me.