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cave of forgotten dreams

May 24, 2011

We just enjoyed the new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog. The amazing documentary (in 3D!) takes us on a tour of the Chauvet caves in France, recently rediscovered in 1994. Herzog takes us on a poetic journey through the caves, talking with archeologists, and musing on the beautiful artwork, and the people who created it in a thoughtful, refreshing way.

Not a mere documentary, and not polished, this piece made me really think about the origins of art and what it was originally for.

The artworks in the caves are the oldest known artworks at an estimated 32,000 years old! This is twice the age of the Lascaux cave art. The cave was sealed by a landslide 20,000 years ago and until cavers in France felt an air current coming from a cliff, followed it and dug into the cave, no one had been inside since then. Because the film is in 3D it really feels like you are going into the cave. It’s a great way to share the beauty and mystery of this cave artwork with everyone, without the contamination that occurs when people are actually in there. The perfect use of 3D! The 3D enables us to see how the images undulate with the curves of the cave walls. The artists made use of the shapes and shadows in the cave to make the drawings spring to life.

What is astounding is that the art in the caves was in process for 5,000 years. There is art over art over art. Bisons, horses, cave lions, cave bears, and wooly mammoths painted in flowing, playful lines. Some lines were a single swoosh 6 feet long. Multiple legs give the appearance of movement. The only human figure was deep inside the cave on a rock outcrop from the ceiling of the lower half of a woman, a Venus of Wilendorf type figure. She was being embraced by a bison. These people returned to the cave until the entrance collapsed. Inside were many animal bones, covered with sparkling calcifications and no human bones. Handprint art gives an indication that the handprint artist was 6 feet tall and had a crooked little finger, making him/her suddenly very human. Charcoal marks and fragments where torches were swiped 20,000 years ago are just sitting there on the rock! One bear skull seemed placed deliberated on top of a rock. So many mysteries.

Consulting the Australian aborigines, one researcher in the film noted that aboriginal art was spiritual and ongoing. Generation after generation would refresh, retrace and add to the drawings. It appears that this is what was happening here too. The refreshing of the art brings the spirit world back to life again. The artist was working through the spirit world, not in this world. It was not about one’s ego or one’s own art. It seems like filming the art is doing this same thing, refreshing the artwork and bringing it back to life, with a certain reverence.

What was accomplished with the art? Was it about the hunt, or shamanic healing, or fertility, or something else? My bet is on fertility. The only human image in the cave is far back in the cave and is female. The fact that they are in a cave seems symbolic. The artwork is feminine looking and is of large animals that had similar gestation periods as a human and may have been very plentiful and healthy so as to seem inspiring for human fertility. I believe the human population was quite small then and there were also neandertals roaming around too. These reasons might have been extra incentives to reproduce more. The embrace with the bison in the one artwork might have signified a wish for plentiful offspring like the bison had, by connecting with the bison.

This is my own musing and not based on anything other that my intuition when seeing an intuitive film, of course. These mysteries will remain mysteries because there is really no way to ever know for sure, except for thinking along the same lines of dreamtime. The artists of 32,000 years ago seem like they are tuned in to the same spirit world artists are tuned into today, an amazing connection over time, in a forgotten, secret space of beauty.

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