cavePech Merle Cave, 25,000 BCE, Village of de Cabrerets, Lot county, France

25,000 years ago an artist who looked a lot like you and me (except without the haircut and the Uniqlo clothes) climbed down 150 feet below the surface of what is now called France, wending through phantasmagorical rock formations, to paint pictures of horses on the walls of a cave. Since their discovery in 1922, those remarkable paintings have been studied by anthropologists and scientists, but the sophistication of their artistry is rarely mentioned because few if any artists have written about them. I saw these paintings–the real things, not reconstructions– in the spring of 2015.

A controversy is raging about whether or not the spots on the horses are to be thought of as representational. In 2011, a team of evolutionary geneticists offered proof that 14,000 years ago horses had genes for “leopard spotting.” The artist of Pech Merle, then, was painting what he or she saw. Barbara Olins Alpert, in her article for the open access journal arts, rebuts that claim by giving examples in contemporaneous art of horses and other animals where it is clear that the spots are not representational – are placed in the area between animals, or are arbitrarily placed on animals that never had spots. She attributes the spots to the “visual voltage” of seeing dots, especially in flickering torch light. The debate is important for how we might tease out the motivations of the artist: was the painter making art, or was the painter making magic?

My contention is that the artist was making art, by using conventions familiar to artists today to represent figures in space. The dots on the back of the depicted horse are bigger than the dots under its belly, as though they were foreshortened. The mane does not hang straight down, but curves as though rounding the horse’s shoulder. Horses overlap to represent a grouping. These are not only matters of close observation, but are also sophisticated techniques to depict volume in a two-dimensional image. And as is often pointed out, the artist used the physical features of the wall itself to further the illusions : the jagged edge of the rock is the profile of a horse’s head, and the shoulder of that horse is a bump on the wall.

As painter Cynthia Carlson remarked to me, some edge lines of this artist’s work are “contours,” in that they are relatively sharp, as over the horse’s rump; but some are feathered out, as over the back, describing a flatter surface, one perpendicular to the viewer. Further, she noted that the artist had the technology to make crisp outlines as shown in the hand silhouettes. It is widely surmised that the artist spit pigment using the hand as a mask for the spray: by varying the angle of the hand, the spray makes a hard or soft line. This variety of line suggests conscious picture making more than a trance-induced instinctive action.

While it is dangerous to project our consciousness onto distant events, there are effective artistic conventions that have been used repeatedly over millennia, and it is imaginable that the Pech Merle artist used these conventions too, just like we do. It is also imaginable that, because those Cro-Magnon people were anatomically built like us (homo sapiens sapiens), they had language, they lived in social groups like we do and they made images to which we can emotionally bond. The reward for such a thought– the thrill of it– is to remember that artistic representation is fundamental to human consciousness– it goes way beyond art world fashon or ego: there is an imperative to make art that we are part of.

drawingTony Robbin, 1963, Pencil and ink on paper