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Paleolithic Cave Art in France
Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France
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Paleolithic Cave Art in France

by Dr Jean Clottes
Paleolithic Cave Paintings and Rock Art in France : Extracted from the Adorant magazine 2002

The Niaux Cave | Film Download

Less well known than other European caves such as Chauvet and Lascaux, Niaux houses some of the world's most spectacular rock art.
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The themes chosen

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Far more numerous are body segments, such as hand stencils and hand prints, heads, female and male genital organs, or again some rather indistinct outlines -which may or may not be human- often called 'ghosts'. Those themes were more or less favoured according to the various cultures (G.R.A.P.P. 1993). Hand stencils and prints can exclusively be found in the earliest periods of the art, probably in the Aurignacian (Chauvet), most certainly in the Gravettian (Cosquer, Pech-Merle, Gargas), roughly between 32,000 and 22,000 BP in uncalibrated radiocarbon years. On the other hand, the female sexes, frequent at the very beginning (Chauvet, Cosquer, several shelters in Dordogne), can also be found in the Solutrean and above all in the Magdalenian (Font-Bargeix, Bedeilhac). That sexual theme is thus a constant of the Upper Paleolithic, with more or less frequent occurrences according to the times and places.

Animals are often drawn without any care for scale, in profile. They can be whole or just represented by their heads or forequarters, which is enough to identify them. Their images are often precise, personalised and identifiable in all their details (sexes, ages, attitudes), whether they be Magdalenian bison in the Ariege or Aurignacian lions and rhinos in the Chauvet Cave, 18,000 years earlier. Scenes are rare and certain themes are absent, like herds and mating scenes. Paintings and engravings are thus neither faithful copies of the surrounding environment nor stereotypes.

As to humans, whatever the culture and diverse as they may be, they always seem to be uncouth and unsophisticated, mere caricatures. This is also a constant feature that stresses the unity of Paleolithic art.

The artistic abilities of the painters and engravers cannot be questioned. They deliberately chose to represent vague humans, with few details or deformed features.

A particular theme is that of composite creatures, at times called sorcerers. Those beings evidence both human and animal characteristics. This theme is all the more interesting as it departs from normality. It is present as early as the Aurignacian in Chauvet. It can be found in Gabillou and Lascaux 10,000 years later or more and it is still present in the Middle Magdalenian of Les Trois-Freres, nearly 20,000 years after its beginnings.

The techniques utilised

Contrary to a well-spread idea, Paleolithic rock art is not merely a 'cave art'. In fact, a recent study showed that if the art of 88 sites was to be found in the complete dark, in 65 other cases it was in the daylight (Clottes 1997). Three main cases can be distinguished : - the deep caves, for which an artificial light was necessary; - the shelters which were more or less lit up by natural light ; - the open air sites. The latter are essentially known in Spain and Portugal. Only one case has been discovered in France (the engraved rock at Campome in the Pyrenees-Orientales).

Tip of a silvester pine torch in Le Reseau Clastres (Niaux, Ariege). Photo R. Simonnet

The art in the light and the art in the dark: those two tendencies have coexisted for all the duration of the Paleolithic. The art in the dark was preferred in certain areas (the Pyrenees) and at certain periods (Middle and Late Magdalenian). The low-relief sculptures are only to be found in shelters. On the other hand, the paintings which used to exist in shelters have for the most part eroded away and only very faint traces remain, contrary to engravings which could in many cases be preserved in them.

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