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Cave Painting

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There is a painting in a cave on an island off the west coast of Scotland. I think it was painted in the 19th century and it depicts the crucifixion of Christ. I don’t know why the man did it, and do not know if he even told anyone why he did it, but I can speculate.

Considering that the subject of the painting is religious I wonder if he chose to do it in a cave as a gift to God. The island is small, home to only a few sheep and a lighthouse, so the cave is situated somewhere that is unlikely to be seen accidentally. To do a painting in there then made it quite private. It is situated somewhere that God can see it, but people are unlikely to go. So to do the painting there is like saying to God, “This painting is for you and only you.” I mean, if you do a painting on canvas and dedicate it to God, and then sell it, God may have doubts about your sincerity, might suspect that money had some place in your motivation.

Cave paintings that are better known are the ones that were done thousands of years ago and appear in caves in many parts of Europe. I have seen the ones in Altamira in Spain but the others only in books. There has been a lot of speculation about why these painting were done, and especially the ones that are in inaccessible places deep in the caves.

Frequently it is suggested that the motivation might have been religious, and considering that the pictures are most frequently about animals that the people would have hunted, and even sometimes show hunting, that the motivation might have been to do with creating good luck for the hunt.

What strikes me about these pictures is that they show VERY high levels of skill, and you only get that level of skill through practice. These people must have been practicing and practicing, much like art students, to have reached that level. Also, they are less stylised paintings and more realistic, which means that they must have been learned from observation of the subjects in real life. So what I am wondering is: where are the artists’ sketch books? And how did they learn? Did the accomplished artists become teachers?

That last question makes me wonder if some of those deep caves were actually ‘art school’! The teachers paint the walls and then the students learn to copy the teachers work. (It has been observed that there are lots of small, young people’s foot prints left in these places, and that when hand prints appear, they, too, are small, like women’s or children’s.) That is the way artists of old learned: they would be apprenticed to an artist in his studio and would specialise in, say, trees or clouds or flowers or whatever. Then the artist would design the picture, have the apprentices put in the trees and clouds and flowers etc, and then he would finish the painting by doing the most difficult bits, like people’s faces.

Of course, if these caves served as art school, or as artists’ studios, then the main works of art must have been elsewhere. That would mean that we are missing both the sketch books and the main works of art.

The Parthenon in Athens, and in fact, all Ancient Greek temples, was painted and colourful. The plain stone that we are familiar with, and mostly think of as ‘tasteful’, is the result of weathering. The originals would have seemed garish to modern eyes.

This makes me wonder if the main works of art of the cave painting era were such as Stonehenge, Carnac and the other megalithic sites. The megaliths might have been covered with artwork. Well, actually, Stonehenge and its fellows are of a later era, but that does not mean that there were not similar, but perhaps smaller, earlier sites of a similar type. I say, ‘smaller and earlier’, as if earlier would imply smaller, but that is not so: the pyramids of Egypt and Central and South America were not equalled until relatively modern times, and there is still some speculation as to how the Easter Islander’s managed to raise their statues; not to mention the ‘pictures’ marked out in the ground in the Nasca desert, which, if I am not mistaken, are still the biggest pictures in the world!

At any rate, what the cave paintings of Europe say to me is that these people had a lot of time for art.

I would then go on to assume that if they were painters and sculptors, then they would also be story tellers, poets and musicians. I would assume this because I think that creativity precedes everything else, so that once people become creative, they will be creative about everything. And you only have to listen to young children, or think of your own childhood, to understand how poetry would develop in an entirely natural way. Children love to ‘play’ with words. They are fascinated by rhymes. It is only a short step from the way children play with words to actual poetry.

So I think that the people who live in these caves had a lot of art in their lives, a lot of story telling and poetry, and music and painting. Maybe they decorated their homes with flowers and other ‘nature art’ --- Neanderthals certainly put flowers in their graves.

Anyway, these thoughts and speculations lead to a very different view of the cave man: less the hairy, grunting lout, and more of the creative, aesthetically sensitive artist.

Cave girl playing with her doll

Saw a shape upon the wall.

With juice and chalk she coloured it in,

And it was such a pretty thing

That with flutter of wings it took flight

And then on cave boy did alight.

He caught it in his hands and said,

“This is a silly, girlie thing, but if instead

It looked more real --- what if it didn’t have wings at all;

What if I put herds of bison on the wall,

Aurochs and horses tossing their heads,

Perhaps some hunters, their kills all bloodied and dead ---

Ah yes. What greatness I see here. Amen!

This is not for women; it’s a thing for men.”

If I was to give a dream interpretation of what is going on in cave painting, it would be this: the painters are preoccupied with a realistic, practical view of life. Which is to say that they prefer, or are elevating, fact over fiction. That many of these are done in the most inaccessible places, and on difficult surfaces, like roofs which need scaffolding to be built to enable the painter to work on the surface, suggests that they are making their affairs (hunting, painting etc) dark, and to seem difficult --- the kind of thing they still do today: men in positions of authority, from heads of the family, to experts and company bosses maintain their elite position by making out that their jobs are far harder than they really are, too difficult for ordinary people. They also put an emphasis on practical things: “the business/company/economy will collapse if I do not do ……….” To get away with that they have to keep what they are doing in the dark. They need to do this to maintain their status and authority.

I have rather wandered away from my original theme, which was the possible religious motivation for painting deep in inaccessible caves, and have got myself into contentious territory --- again! So how about I change tack yet again and ask, “Does it really matter what the motivation was?”

At least as far as enjoying the art goes I would say it does not matter in the least. (Question: what about the likes of Wagner and others who are considered to have been anti-Semitic?) I love some of that cave art. I love the mystique of being deep in a cave and thousands of years old. Also, most of it is jumbled up images, sometimes even painted one on top of another, which is more like an artist’s sketch book than a modern finished work of art, and I really like artist’s sketch books, often more that the finished works. The sketch books are alive. They have a vitality and immediacy that is lost in the finished painting. Also, I feel I am getting more of a true glimpse into the mind and way of working of the artist.

Edited by pantodragon
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