Mind-stretching Art / by Jeannine Cook


I knew it was important to see. But the weather forecast was for snow, sleet, rain and high winds. And it was a long drive... Nonetheless, I went.

Where? Well, to one of the really important caves for prehistoric art in the Pyrenees in South France. To Niaux Cave, to be exact, in Niaux, south of Foix, the centre of the Ariège district.

In a way, the stage is well set for the interior of the two-kilometer long series of interlocking caves by the dramatic Corten steel building-cum-sculpture which marks today's entrance to the cave. Massimiliano Fuksas' architecture is somehow as wild and fanciful as any imaginary creature that could emerge from the caves.

After a long, wet tramp into the dramatic galleries of the cave, lit only by each person's individual torch issued to us, I began to have the sensation of inexorably walking backwards in time. First this was helped by all the graffiti on the walls, signatures of earlier visitors dating back as far as 1602.

Grotte de Niaux, early visitor's graffiti

Then came wall marking far earlier than that - red and black dots and lines, early man's geometrical marks.

Grotte de Niaux, rock panel of signs

We penetrated further and further into the ample, swooping roofed galleries that had been sculpted by water over millennia. It was quiet and mysterious. Only the sound of footsteps, the occasional splosh as someone stepped into one of the numerous large puddles, and the dancing beams of light catching the sparkle of minerals on the tumultuous ceilings...

Then suddenly our soft-spoken, knowledgeable young French guide stopped by a large flat rock. She asked us to turn off our flashlights and put them on the rock. Total silent darkness, as each of us wondered what happened next.

We were told to follow a stainless steel railing with our hands as the guide's light led us along. Another pause. Then she switched on a powerful white light, training it on the cave wall. Perhaps the children in the group expressed our emotions best - they simply gasped and shrieked, "Chouette!" - "Cool!".

Before us was the first complex grouping of black drawings - interlocking bison, horses,deer, even an exquisitely stippled ibex. Outlines, some use of the rock wall contours, a sureness of line and touch that was fresh, sophisticated and powerful, totally arresting. Animals depicted in silhouette, the bison with lances sometimes in their flanks, all represented with amazing accuracy and knowledge.

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, horses

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, superimposed bison and a horse

Grotte de Niaux, Przewalski horse

Grotte de Niaux, horse

As we moved slowly round the Salon Noir, with the light shone brilliantly and briefly on each panel, followed by darkness once more, the "ceremony" of viewing became more and more an incantation, an altering of one's sense of the here and now. Evocations were made of the different interpretations of these works of art, buried so far in the depths of the earth, - religious, symbolic, shamanistic... We shall never know for certain, but the ensemble of animals, symbols and signs seems to represent views of worlds beyond the Magdalenians' daily lives, worlds where society's problems were thus resolved and in which harmony was restored.

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, ibex

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, bison

Trying to enter the mind of those far-off Magdalenians is not easy. With such fluidity and knowledge of form, they were drawing these astonishing images on the rough walls of Niaux 14,000 years ago for the most part, or incising images on the floors of the caves. Nonetheless, I found another fact to be even more mind-bending. One series of bison drawings, on the other side of the Salon Noir to the main groups, is apparently dated to about 13,000 years ago. In other words, a thousand years later, other artists drew very similar groups of images. In the light of flickering flares...

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, panel 6, bison and ibex

Something even more astounding was then softly explained by our guide. Apparently there is a very similar series of drawings in the Grotte Chauvet, miles away in the Ardèche region of France, that resembles those in Niaux. The one important fact that required endless verification and ultimate confirmation: the Grotte Chauvet drawings were done at least 14,000 years previously.

To think that our ancestors could echo the same images and approach to creating drawings of bison and other animals 14,000 years later... without any of our present means of recording images by paper, camera, scanner, whatever... It is almost beyond comprehension.

For me, this was the summum of mind-stretching dislocation about the power and importance of art, whatever its ultimate meaning for those who created it and viewed it in those quiet natural cathedrals beneath the earth.

I was more than glad I had made that snowy trip through the Pyrenees!