Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Art before art history began

By Janet McAllister

Jean Clottes. Photo / Alan Gibson
Jean Clottes. Photo / Alan Gibson

The word "prehistoric" makes it sound like nothing happened until some bureaucrat started up an archive. So when I heard the words "prehistoric rock art", images of dim, club-wielding, shaggy cave men and women used to spring to mind, as if drawn there by Gary Larson.

Until, that is, I went to Auckland Museum last Sunday evening to hear Professor Jean Clottes, a tall French archaeologist with a balding pate and a name out of Tintin, give a lecture about the wondrous, spiritually significant art of the Chauvet Cave. Forget Paris - I reckon these drawings of animals are the artistic highwater mark of Prof Clottes' noble nation.

Drawn using sophisticated chiaroscuro shading and perspective, the works are 34,000 years old - give or take 5,000 years - and Clottes explained cheerfully how his own estimation of the art's age was out by 12,000 to 15,000 years because the art was just so damn good - better than more recent examples. Discovered in 1994, the cave upset notions of art's steady progress.

As Clottes said, it turns out art had its heydays and its decadences - its ups and downs - before art history was invented.

Both the similarities and contrasts with modern art were fascinating. The Chauvet artists prepared their surfaces - scraping them to reveal white underneath - before drawing. Clottes' theory is that this wasn't (just) to make it easier to draw, but to "destroy the magic of the bear" - bears being earlier inhabitants of the cave, who had also scratched the walls. He thinks red handprints were as much about pulling magic from the walls as about leaving "I wuz here" marks. Like Jackson Pollock, the Chauvet artists may have seen art practice as well as products as meaningful.

Thus Prof Clottes kicked the caveman-as-cretin cartoon to the kerb - and upstaged Werner Herzog to boot.

This last is also impressive, as you'll know if you've seen the darkly romantic German film-maker's documentary Grizzly Man, or heard the spoof-Herzog reading Where's Waldo? on YouTube. And Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams - shown after Prof Clottes' talk - includes exceptionally rare footage of Chauvet (where no non-scholarly visitors are allowed). The drawn mammoths, lions, bears and woolly rhinos seem to move in the firelight, as the artists most likely intended.

But where Herzog (in his film) simply told us "we are locked in history and they [the artists] are not", Prof Clottes cracked open that myth with his juicy details and theories.

The evening held one more tantalising surprise. Ngai Tahu anthropologist Gerard O'Regan gave us a whistle-stop tour of 700-odd years of stunning Maori rock art. He showed us urgent waka, intriguing taniwha, people with moko and dogs - and a detailed European sailing ship captioned in te reo in "missionary-taught script" (another myth broken: not all cave art is "prehistoric"). It's a travesty that we don't know about, let alone celebrate, this heritage. Forgive me, but just this once, we should learn from the French.

Tinyurl.com/chauvetcave

- NZ Herald

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