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Prehistoric Hobbies (Cave Painting)

Prehistoric Hobbies (Cave Painting)

Author: Ian McConnell

Understand artistic techniques and qualities characteristic of cave paintings.

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Exploring examples of prehistoric cave paintings from France and Spain.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about Cave Painting. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, identify works of art as cave paintings, and explain the possible purposes for cave paintings.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. The first key term is Twisted Perspective, when you view a form from the upper half as a frontal pose and the lower half is in a side view.

Optical View is viewed from a fixed perspective.

And Descriptive Point of View is an approximate representation of a three-dimensional form on a flat, two-dimensional surface.

Big idea for today is that cave paintings are some of the earliest examples of human artistic creation.

Just a side note, today's lesson does feature required artwork, which will be listed in purple.

The first thing we're going to do is take a look at time in history. As always, I've marked 0 AD. And we're going to be looking at the time period ranging from about 33000 BC to about 12000 BC. And I've highlighted the approximate range of the Ancient Egyptian empire for comparison.

The ancient cave paintings we're studying reside in two modern-day countries, those of Spain and France. The first, Spain, is shown here in dark green, followed by France, which is just northeast of Spain and is shown here also in dark green. Now one of our cave paintings is found in the cave of Altamira, which is located in the very north of Spain, approximately here. The other three cave paintings are located in France.

So here's modern-day France and modern-day Paris. There are no cave paintings in Paris, by the way. And these are the other three locations. I'll do my best French pronunciation. The first, on the right, is Chauvet Cave. The second, at the bottom, is Pech Merle. And the third is Lascaux. And these are the approximate locations.

We'll take a look at our three key terms a little bit more in detail, using some pretty gorgeous drawings of mine to depict these a little bit more clearly than you could see in the actual cave paintings. Sometimes it's kind of hard to tell what you're looking at.

So begin with what's called optical perspective. And this is depicting an object from only one side.

This next example is called twisted perspective. And this is depicting an object from two different perspectives. The head is facing forward, as seen here, and the body is a side profile. Now this is a common technique that's used a lot in Mesopotamian art, as you'll see in future lessons.

And finally, descriptive point of view, which is an attempt at explaining something in three dimensions. And it uses techniques of overlapping and foreshortening. Foreshortening is depicting objects that are further back a little bit shorter or smaller. So an example of this would be the legs on the bottom, and the nostril, the eyeball and the ear on the left side of my beautiful horse.

Now these artistic techniques are important to bring up, because it clearly demonstrates that our ancient friends had a somewhat sophisticated way of depicting realistic imagery. It's not perfect, but it does demonstrate an awareness of artistic perspective, particularly through the use of the descriptive point of view.

Pigments would have been limited in color, judging by what remains, probably limited to charcoals, which would be the blacks, and naturally occurring iron oxides found in ochre clays. And those would be the red, yellow, brown, and even in some cases, shades of purple are possible using those clays.

Believed by some scholars that primitive paintbrushes made from air-- or made from hair-- could have been used to apply the pigments. And the hand print above has been attributed by some scholars to the use of a primitive airbrush, where the pigments are chewed in the mouth and then sprayed out as a mist from the mouth over an object, like a hand, creating a silhouette.

Now the first of our required works of art is from Lascaux cave in France. It's dated to about 15000 BC and is titled "The Hall of Bulls". Surprisingly, as you'll see in most of these cave paintings, the use of an optical view, which is the simplest, such as here, isn't used as often as you might think. Now the example of the horse near the top is an example of optical perspective in this painting. But the rest is dominated by the use of the descriptive point of view.

The second example is also from Lascaux. It's titled "The Bird-Headed Man". It's possibly a hunter with a bison and shows an overly simplified depiction of a human laying down next to a much more detailed image of a bison portrayed in a twisted perspective. It also shows the disembowelment of the animal. And this is different from other paintings at Lascaux and how it seems to be telling a story. Whether it is a scene from real life, a hunting expedition, a story or the vision of a shaman is left to debate.

This painting comes from Pech-Merle cave in France and depicts two spotted horses from about 25000 BC, with some hand images added about 10,000 years later, in 15000 BC. What's interesting about this painting is in how the application of the pigment strongly suggests the employment of some type of tool, like the hair paint brush, or the primitive airbrush technique described before. Examples like this painting help to support the hypothesis that primitive humans were much more sophisticated than originally thought.

Now this final image is actually the oldest image we're examining. It comes from the Chauvet cave in France. It dates to about 32000 BC and is a great example of the use of descriptive point of view in rendering the images. The other interesting thing is in the depiction of the rhinoceros, an animal we identify with Africa today, showing up as far away as France. Again, descriptive point of view.

Now this next image is from the cave of Altamira in Spain and depicts a bison, using the descriptive point of view. It is from about 12000 BC and is not a required work of art, by the way. Now the fact that we found these cave paintings at all is pretty amazing. The first cave painting was only first discovered in 1897, on accident, by a little girl from Altamira, Spain. Now they introduce as many questions as they may answer, particularly about their purpose.

There were found inside caves, obviously, but in small, difficult to access areas. And this has led many scholars to believe that they were not intended to be viewed by the majority of people, given their limited access. So if they were only intended to be viewed by certain people, who would those people be and what purpose would the paintings serve?

So many possible theories have been suggested, such as art for art's sake. After all, our ancestors probably liked pretty things, too. Initiation rites, in order to teach individuals about the behavior of animals, or hunting magic, which was a way of ensuring successful hunts, which was absolutely essential to the survival of these nomadic people. Others have suggested that they are related to shamanism, specifically that they are the representations of visions observed in an altered state of consciousness. But regardless, they were undoubtedly important, as people kept returning to them for thousands and thousands of years.

That brings us to the end of our lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you identify works of art as cave paintings? And can you can explain the possible purposes for cave paintings?

The big idea, again, for today is that cave paintings are some of the earliest examples of human artistic creation.

And that's it. Thanks for joining me. See you next time.



Image of Bison Public Domain; Image of Horses and Hands Public Domain,_painting.JPG; Image of France (closeup) Creative Commons; Image of Spain (closeup) Creative Commons; Image of Spain Map Creative Commons; Image of France Map Creative Commons; Image of Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux Creative Commons,; Image of Bird-Headed Man with Bison, Lascaux, Creative Commons; I, Peter80,; Image of Wall Painting with Horses, Rhinoceroses, and Aurochs (Museum Replica), Chauvet Cave,

Terms to Know
Descriptive Point of View

An approximate representation of a three-dimensional form on a flat two -dimensional surface.

Optical View

Viewed from a fixed perspective.

Twisted Perspective

When you view a form where the upper half is a frontal pose and the lower half is in a side view.