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Art History Timeline: The Caves of Lascaux

 

When taking any art history course the point of departure is often the Caves of Lascaux: a series of Paleolithic cave paintings known for their size and sophistication. They were painted approximately 17,000 years ago by the Neanderthals, and became listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites' list in 1979. They are considered to be one of, if not the, earliest form of visual expression and help scholars in answering the question: when did art begin?

 

The Discovery

 

The Caves of Lascaux were discovered on September 12, 1940 in Southwestern France, near the village of Montignac. A teenage boy named Marcel Ravidat came upon the entrance to the cave. His dog had jumped into them, and following him down a long shaft discovered that the walls were covered with nearly 600 paintings of animals, including horses, deer, ibex, and bison. Additionally, there were also about 1,400 engravings carved into the walls of similar subjects, and a large amount of Paleolithic tools. The discovery changed the way art historians thought about their field.

 

What are the seven sectors of the Lascaux cave and what do they depict?

 

Lascaux has traditionally been divided into seven sectors: the Hall of the Bulls, the Axial Gallery, the Passageway, the Nave, the Chamber of the Felines, the Apse and the Shaft. Most of the larger images are located deep in the cave, and the animals they depict are both those that were hunted and those that were predators. They were rendered with a twisted, abstract perspective often with their heads in profile but their bodies or antlers facing forwards, which was typical in Egyptian art. Unlike art today, which is created mostly using brushes, these images were created through blowing pigments on the walls either from the hand or from a hollowed bone.

 

What is the meaning of the Lascaux Caves?

 

 

The meaning of the caves has been widely discussed, and it is believed they were used for spiritual or ritualistic purposes. The grandeur of many of the paintings suggest this, as does their location deep in the caves. It is also thought that since figures are often painted over other figures that it was the act of painting rather than the end result that was the purpose of the works. More broadly these works represent how man wanted to understand his surroundings through visual expression.

 

Can you visit the Lascaux Caves?

 

 

The caves at Lascaux was opened to the public after World War II ended in 1945. However, after drawing 1,000 visitors a day it became apparent that the artworks would not last with that amount of visitors breathing carbon dioxide in the space. The caves were closed in 1965 to visitors, and only researchers and caretakers may enter today. However, a replica has been made, and gives the visitor the emotional and contemplative experience of viewing the space.