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The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artistsby Gregory Curtis
Synopses & Reviews
In his new book, Gregory Curtis introduces us to the spectacular cave paintings of France and Spainto the men and women who rediscovered them, to the varied theories about their origins, to their remarkable beauty and their continuing fascination.
He takes us with him on his own journey of discovery, making us see the astonishing sophistication and power of the paintings, telling us what is known about their creators, the Cro-Magnon people who settled the area some 40,000 years ago.
Beginning in 1879 with Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who found the astonishing paintings on the ceiling of a cave at Altamira, Curtis takes us among the scholars of prehistory, the archaeologists, the art historians who devoted their lives to studying and writing about the paintings. Among them: the famous Abbé Henri Breuil, who lay on his back in damp caves lit only by a lantern held patiently aloft by his faithfuland silentfemale assistant, to produce the exquisite tracings that are the most reproduced renderings of the art; Max Raphael, the art historian who first understood that the animals on the walls were not single portraits but part of larger compositions; the beautiful Annette Lamming-Emperaire, resistance fighter turned archaeologist, whose doctoral thesis was so important that all theory since has flowed from her work; Jean Clottes and others still working as new caves and information come to light.
In his own search for the caves meaning, Curtis takes us through the major theoriesthat the art was part of fertility or hunting rituals, or used for religious or shamanistic purposes, or was clan mythologyexamining the ways in which ethnography, archaeology, and religion have influenced the thinking about the cave paintings over time.
The Cave Painters is rich in detail, personalities, and historyand permeated with the mystery at the core of this art created so many thousands of years ago by human beings who had developed, perhaps for the first time, both the ability for abstract thought and a profound and beautiful way to express it.
"For centuries, people have been going into caves in France and Spain, looking at the 30,000-year-old pictures painted there and asking, 'What can they be?' In this lively survey, Curtis, former Texas Monthly editor, makes it clear that while we'll never have a definitive answer, the quest will always be fascinating. He begins by laying out who the painters probably were and what their world was like during the waning days of Neanderthals. Then he dives into the caves and the bitter controversies on the art within, from the war of ideas between Marcelo Sautuola and Emile Cartailhac in the late 19th century to Jean Clottes's and David Lewis-Williams's current, strongly disputed theory that the paintings are related to shamanic quests. Curtis's own speculation is sometimes more arguable than believable, but usually intriguing. He bolsters a slim number of illustrations with concise descriptions that convey his own delight, befuddlement, frustration and awe. At the cave Les Tres-Frres, he is overwhelmed by the images and by being 'as close as I would ever be — physically close — to The Truth.' For readers who may never visit the caves, Curtis's sensitive narration gives a chance to share that encounter with mystery. 20 b&w illus. and 8-page color insert." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The work of other artists didn't often reduce Pablo Picasso to a state of utter humility, but that's exactly what happened just after World War II, when he was mucking about in a cave in southwestern France. This wasn't just any cave, however — its walls were festooned with striking pictures of horses and bulls that date from the Ice Age, all rendered with exquisite sophistication and symbolic force.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Upon exiting the cave, an awed Picasso declared, 'We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.' He wasn't kidding. The art in this cave — called Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel of cave art — and in many others that dot parts of France and Spain deservedly ranks with the greatest masterworks of Western art. Yet these paintings have provoked as much vexed speculation as they have wonder and awe: What was their purpose? Why are there so many pictures of animals? The painters had many colors at their disposal, but why do black and red dominate? Why are there no pictures of sky, moon or trees? What are the strange geometric signs found in many of the caves? Why are there few images of people? Just what does it all mean? Such questions have kept generations of scholars and archaeologists busy trying to find a definitive if ever elusive explanation. In 'The Cave Painters,' journalist Gregory Curtis provides a fine, lucid introduction to the debates — there are plenty of intellectual imbroglios and, sorry for the pun, a few off-the-wall theories — plus a succinct guide to the aesthetics of the paintings themselves. To understand cave art, we must first radically adjust how exactly we define 'primitive' and then throw conventional notions of artistic progress out the window. The glories of ancient Rome and Greece were but a blip compared to the great age of cave painting, which began about 32,000 years ago and lasted for roughly 20,000 years. (Considering the time frame itself requires a staggering mental leap.) The incredibly skilled cave painters followed a very specific set of conventions, worked collectively and 'chose to paint animals that had a special place in their culture.' As Curtis notes, the oldest paintings 'have all the refinement, subtlety, and power that great art has had ever since.' For centuries, cave art was ignored or dismissed as a clever prank. But in 1879, a Spanish scholar named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola had a eureka moment when he was poking around in a cave called Altamira in Spain. He was overwhelmed by paintings of life-size bison on the cave's ceiling; this was, writes Curtis, 'the first time we know of that an artist from the distant Stone Age touched the soul of a modern person.' When Sautuola tried to publicize his findings, which linked the art to discoveries of prehistoric tools and carvings found on horns and other hard surfaces, archaeologists turned on him, mocking his conclusions with a savage fury. The great debate was on, and the theories and counter-theories haven't stopped since. Curtis deftly leads us on a tour of contending interpretations, although some of the terms can be rather arcane. Not everyone was put off by Sautuola's daring assertions. Indeed, one of his fiercest critics, Imile Cartailhac, France's leading prehistorian, eventually came around after more and more cave art was discovered in the 1890s. Teaming up with Henri Breuil, a young priest and student of cave art, he published the ur-text of cave painting, 'La Caverne d'Altamira a Santillane,' in 1906. Illustrated with Breuil's stunning reproductions (works of art in their own right), their utilitarian arguments turned on analogies to modern Stone Age tribes — like Australia's Aborigines — who used similar art, such as rock painting, as a kind of 'hunting magic.' For example, just as Australian tribes 'used abstract signs in their art as symbols of real objects,' the geometric figures in Altamira 'are also some images of some device, of a weapon.' This hunting magic thesis hardly settled anything. In fact, the discovery of Lascaux in 1940, with its magnificent Hall of Bulls, completely upset hunting-oriented interpretations. For one thing, reindeer were the primary source of food for the people who lived around Lascaux, yet no paintings of reindeer were found in the cave. Around the same time, another of Curtis' obsessive scholars, a Frenchman named Max Raphael, went on the attack. The ethnographic approach of Breuil and Cartailhac was off the mark, Raphael charged; we must take an art historical approach and look at the cave paintings in terms of pictorial space. In Altamira, for example, what seemed a bunch of random figures was actually a single composition precisely grouped around a central axis. What's more, to call cave art 'primitive' was plain ridiculous. The culture of the Paleolithic era, 'in the throes of a continuous process of transformation,' was every bit as dynamic as ancient Greece or Rome, claimed Raphael, and this is reflected in the cave art. Other scholars have resorted to statistical analysis, as well as linking the different animals and signs to male and female principles, to interpret the paintings. Still, consensus remains elusive. The latest uproar, subject of Curtis' last and perhaps most fascinating chapter, turns on whether cave art was the creation of tribal shamans 'trying to reproduce the visions they saw while in a magic trance,' an argument that has provoked heated rebuttals. One critic snorted, 'If we believe that the Paleolithic art in the caves is based on the trance, we should pack our bags and go home.' With more provocative theories surely on the way, it is certain we will be arguing about these glorious creations for many years to come. Matthew Price is a critic and freelance journalist living in Brooklyn." Reviewed by Matthew Price, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
In this comprehensive study of the cave paintings of France and Spain, Curtis touches on every aspect of the paintings, from their beauty and theories about their origins to the men and women who rediscovered them. He considers the meaning of the paintings by reviewing the major theories--that the art was part of fertility or hunting rituals, was used for religious purposes or was clan mythology--and explaining the ways in which ethnography, archeology and religion have influenced the thinking about the paintings over time. Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Gregory Curtis is the author of Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo. He was editor of Texas Monthly from 1981 until 2000. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Time, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. A graduate of Rice University and San Francisco State College, he and his wife live in Austin, Texas.
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