A longer review of a book and two shorter ones of movies, all about our humanity. I finished reading The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis about the cave art in southern France, a very interesting read. I did not know that there are many, many caves with thousands of paintings, etchings, and even some sculptures in these caves. Mr. Curtis tells the story of how they have been discovered and studied by modern people and what few conclusions may be drawn therefrom. The animals are mostly horses, bison,bulls, mammoths, elk, etc. bigger animals, not rabbits or such like and few if any birds. Humans are represented but are generally more schematized and not rendered with the flowing artistry of the other animals. There are also many marks of various sorts and hands in both positive and negative images. These were made over a period of 10,000 years with generally the same technique, so, as Mr. Curtis points out, this artistic tradition is a conservative one, one that served its cultural purpose well for a long time. The cave art stopped being made when the glaciers receded and humans began to wander northward.
Scholars have noted that the finest paintings are generally in the larger front chambers and that more etchings and smaller paintings are in the back harder to reach sections. The former are stunning works of art, very dynamic and vital. Consider these horses.
The latter images deeper in often overlap with each other, suggesting multiple individuals tried their hands at the task. A most interesting point is that the artwork seems to have been composed based upon the outlines presented by the cavern walls. Some lines were painted or etched to complete a figure otherwise presented by the rock formations. Other figures were sculpted from the wet clay on the cavern floors, such as these bison.
Other figures were broken or melted back into the clay by the cave’s moisture. Mr. Curtis reports that many hypotheses of the art’s meaning or cultural function have been proposed and contradicted by further study, such as the hypothesis that these served some magical ritual for hunting. One hypothesis is not contradicted by any data but the purists correctly assert that we cannot ascertain its truth. This is that the front chambers were public places for many people to gather and engage in ritual excitement and then the back chambers were where individuals expressed their own inspiration. This is based upon our understanding of shamanic religions, so of course some scholars would take exception to this modern interpolation. But it seems quite reasonable to me; there is a shaman like figure in one cave and several figures that combine human and other animal forms. What really stands out to me is the composition process of finding the figures in the rock or of placing their hand prints on the rock as if it were a way of discerning another reality, the one emanating from the underworld. This seems to be the basis of the novel Shaman just a few years ago. Anyway, an excellent read.
Now two brief reviews of movies. The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, the difficult genius who broke the German enigma code in WWII and also conceived of a universal thinking machine, i.e., the computer, who was prosecuted for being gay and committed suicide because of the debilitating effects of court ordered chemical castration. Now I am glad that Western society has caught up with its science about sexual preference and gender identity and that we are beginning to accord LGBT individuals their full rights. And I hope the rest of the world follows along soon because being LGBT in many modern societies is still a dangerous proposition. I also want to say that I worked with many kids like Alan, not that bright maybe, but bright enough and still without a clue about human relationships and their coin of emotional transaction. This is now called autism spectrum disorder, used be called pervasive developmental disorder, and many were known to have Asperger’s syndrome after a German doctor in the early 1900s who first noted the pattern. What this movie shows very well is how such individuals can be at a complete loss as to what is going on between people empathically. They can be and are mistaken as sociopaths but they are very different; read Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil. Long ago I read an autobiography of one such individual who said clearly that he thought ‘normal’ people had ESP because they seemed to sense a different and to them unseen world. Sort of like the shaman artist seeing a powerful beast emerge from the cave rock. A good movie.
The next movie is Love is Strange, beautifully acted by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. You want to see a movie about human dignity and love shining through the struggle with human foibles? Enough said.
One more painting, this one more recent from a man-made cave.