Talk Description to Me

Episode 79 - Cave Paintings

November 27, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 3 Episode 79
Talk Description to Me
Episode 79 - Cave Paintings
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Since our days as cave-dwelling hunter gatherers, humans have been creating and sharing art. Paintings by early humans still adorn the walls and ceilings of hundreds of caves around the world. Far from "primitive" sketches, many of these works of art demonstrate an evolving understanding of colour, form, symbolism, and pictorial communication. This week, Christine and JJ discuss Palaeolithic handprints, cave etchings, and figurative paintings: the earliest human-made art on the planet.

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed out in description rich conversations

Christine Malec:

This episode is going to be talking about cave art, Ancient Cave Art. And the challenge for me in this episode is going to be not to go off in all a bunch of tangential directions because this is a subject that has fascinated me utterly for so many years. And every part of it is fascinating to me. So we're gonna try and focus on the visuals, I'll try not to wander off into wild speculation on issues that I have no expertise in. So being that we're going to focus on the visuals, I should say this initially came from a presentation I was able to arrange for a group that I run. And Melissa Smith of the Art Gallery of Ontario was the presenter, and she's an art historian who was gracious enough to come on to talk about her knowledge and history of cave art. And she did some descriptions. And then JJ and I built on this. So he's going from Melissa's notes here. And we're going to talk really specifically about the visuals. So, JJ, can we talk sort of, can you start by just giving us a context of the location and time period that we're going to be focusing on?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. Melissa was kind enough to share her notes with me. So I'll kind of present some of the some of the information that Melissa had presented in your group context. So thank you very much to Melissa for sharing these notes. That's super generous. And just to say out loud, any mistakes. In this research our mind in the retelling not Melissa's in the actual gathering of information. So the very earliest cave art actually dates back to the time of the Neanderthals. So 65,000 years ago, but most of the cave art that we talked about it certainly the art that we're going to talk about today comes from roughly 40,000 years ago and earlier. So this is the art that's created by homosapiens. Broadly speaking, cave painting techniques and materials improved across the board kind of century by Century. So the monochrome paintings from 40,000 to 25,000 BC BCE, that art gave way to the polychrome art of 25 to 20,000 BCE. And then that then led to the golden age of cave painting, which is generally understood to be around 15 to 10,000 BC. that's those are the paintings at Lascaux in France. So it's pretty far outside my scope to break down the visuals, era by era. But I did want to note that it is important to understand that this is an art that grew in technique and style over the centuries, it did change and evolve. So the first Painted Cave that was acknowledged, it's now acknowledged as being Paleolithic, this is the stone age that was in Spain. And but a lot of examples of, of cave art. And the stuff that we're going to be talking about today is found in France, Spain, but also Portugal, England, Italy, Romania, Germany, Russia, but also in Indonesia. And really, there's cave painting all around the world of the petroglyphs in Canada. And there's there's all kinds of cave painting and Aboriginal art in Australia. But the stuff we're going to be focusing on today are, you know, the art that can be found in around the 400 or so sites in France and the region.

Christine Malec:

It's useful to talk about the materials that were used partly because they help us to understand the the appearance of the art, the visual impression based on the color. So can you say something about the what was actually being used and the visual impression that those materials make?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. So my understanding is that almost all the materials and what I mean they would have had to come from natural sources, right, so soil, rock, charcoal, wood bones. And so what would happen is these materials were often broken down so literally smashed up pounded, and then they were extended using talc things like talc, and then they were bound together in to a some sort of paste or paint, using things like saliva or oils from plants and animals, and then they could be applied to the wall with a finger or with a hand or even sometimes in the most basic form a piece of charcoal pulled from a fire could be held like a pencil. But they also use brushes depending on the era, they there were brushes that were made, these are animal hair brushes, and I think I've seen visuals of this, I haven't, I haven't been able to confirm that these are how accurate these you know, reconstructed brushes are but you know, you take a stick or a bone and you split the end so that it can, it opens up a little bit. And then you can tuck in a tuft of hair or feathers. And then you can wind either a piece of like a string of plant material or some kind of sin you around it to kind of clamp it down again. And you can create basically a brush, there are also moss pads. So you could take a clump of moss and use that as a dipping pad. So you would dip that in the pigment and then pad the wall, pat the wall so that you could put the you know, put paint on the wall that way, you could also blow through a hollowed out bone. So basically you would spray you suck some some of the pigment into your mouth or into a straw essentially, and then blow through it and spray that material onto the wall. So those are kind of some of the the actual brushes and and you know pieces of equipment. As far as the colors go like the the pigments themselves, we're talking ochres, Umbers, Siennas, manganese and Kaolin. From ochres. This is a color that's derived from clay and iron oxide. So these are really rich yellows, reds, oranges, and kind of brownie colors. And again, this is ochre, you, you get this iron oxide from a rock and you break it down until you you have a powder of this of this color that you're interested in using. And then you add your saliva or you add your talc and you grind it into a paste umber these are browns, reddish browns. And if you heat it up as people did, it gets the brown color gets dark, really intense. This is burnt umber. And Sienna is a in its raw form. It's a yellowish brown, so kind of like a like a little bit mustardy. But then when you when you you heat it up, you burn it and create burnt sienna, you get a reddish brown color that's more like get like a caramelly kind of color. Manganese, this is this is black. And really when you look at the manganese in its raw form, it's a really, really shiny black rock, really quite intensely black and you can grind that up and create the kind of paint that would be used for the outlines, often the outlines would be done in black, but sometimes you would create some in these paintings there are almost silhouetted figures. So they're the entire body is rendered in this dark black manganese color. And then there's Kaolin. This is this is the substance that gets white and impressively white, I have to say like that sometimes in these paintings, either a figure or a background will be painted in white. And so it helps the figures pop on these pieces of art. And it's really quite an astonishing clear, crisp, white color that you can get from this from from Kaolin.

Christine Malec:

Can we talk about some of the things that are represented in the art?

JJ Hunt:

Yes, there are different kinds of that the categories that Melissa broke it down into were handprints and finger marks, abstract signs, rock engravings, and figurative paintings. So let's go through each one of those types kind of piece by piece. So let's start with handprints. In some ways, that kind of the images of hands are some of the most basic paintings that you find. But I also find them visually some of the most mesmerizing, so there are kind of two ways to do hands on the walls. One is artists would paint their the palm of their hand and press the hand against the surface and you get a handprint. And that can be the palm and all the fingers, you know from tip of the finger all the way down to the base of the palm. Pretty simple. But again, like that's actually someone's hand pressed against the wall. So when you're looking at this hand on the wall that 40,000 years ago, someone pressed that I mean, that's an incredible thought that you're still seeing that that it's still on the wall, you know, preserved all this time. It's remarkable. The other way that hands are used in this art is as stencils. So we've talked about stenciling before this is where you put something against the surface that blocks paint or blocks pigment and then you you spray on the paint around it when you remove the stencil then you have that shape outlined in the piece of art and so hands were used in this way people would suck the paint up To the straws, like we've already talked about, hold the hand up against the surface and then spray through it. And you would get this outline of a hand. And what's really cool about these hand stencils is that they weren't just necessarily done one at a time. In some cases, they were done dozens at a time. There's a cave in Argentina known as the cave of hands, where there are dozens and dozens and dozens of these hands on a wall. And the stone of the wall itself is painted in advance in splotches. So almost like a leopard print pattern, but much, much larger. So you'll have a circle ish shape of a black beside a shape that is more white beside a shape that is yellow beside a shape that is a red, and then people would spray secondary colors over their hands. So then remove the hand and what you end up seeing our hands have different shades, surrounded by shapes of different shades. So you have got white hands on black surfaces and red hands on white surfaces, and yellow gold hands on brown surfaces. And visually from today's perspective, this conveys an idea of diversity of community of family of village and who knows what the original artists were intending to be saying what these pieces but today, it's hard not to look at these different skin tones. That's how it presents in this arrangement on a, you know, on a massive wall, a cave wall. And it's hard not to think of diversity when you see it.

Christine Malec:

Now, I know I said I wasn't going to do this. But I'm going to go on a small tangent here because because in popular culture, when you think caveman painting on the wall, so this might come up in a documentary or a comic strip or something, it's caveman painting on the wall. But the current scholarship is saying that if you study the morphology of the hands that are shown there, they're just as some of them are, many of them like have are just as likely to be women's hands because women's hands are structured a bit differently. And I believe that children's hands also figure in some of these images, too. So I like the idea of thinking about the diversity and that our our concept of who is doing the painting is just our concept. And so when popular culture shows the caveman painting on the wall, that's just our idea. That's nothing that we actually know about the science actually suggests otherwise. Can So what other kinds of representations do you find?

JJ Hunt:

Well, abstract shapes are found a lot. So these are, you know, sometimes very simple circles, lines, dots, rows of dots, clusters of dots, then you get a little bit more sophisticated. So half circles, ovals, rectangles, then you get really interesting hash marks and cross hatching. And then it gets really strange spirals and squiggles and some very, very specific shapes, like there's one shape that's a straight line, a horizontal line with an arrow pointing directly up from it, that's a very specific shape to create, there's one that looks like a ladder lying on its side. So two, two parallel rows horizontally. With the slats basically like a fence or a ladder lying on its side. Again, that's a very specific shape. What's interesting about all of these is that they, you know, there's no Rosetta Stone to indicate that this is an official codified language. But they're also specific enough and repeated in different places enough that there is some understanding that this is a version of early communication. Some of these dots apparently, are clan identifiers or trail markers, so that if you were journeying from one place to another and you came to a cave and you found a certain number of dots on the outside of a cave, or in the inside of a cave, or whatever, you would know whose clan lived there or has been there. Really interesting. from a visual standpoint, I have to say, a lot of the photos that are taken of these, they're either random and just completely on their own three dots on their own, or like a bit of hashing hashmark or something on its own. But sometimes they're grouped together. And they're grouped together in a way that looks just visually to me, like you know, if I get a new set of paints and a new paint brush, I want to dab the brush and all the different kinds of paint and make marks on the on a scrap piece of paper to see you know, how flat does this brush get how thin a line can I make what if I you know, combine this color in this color. It's a test page and some of these groupings of marks Looks a bit like a test page. I'm not saying that's what it actually is. But visually when you get all these different colors of dots, you know, so I've got a picture here that's got two rows of six black ish dots. And then you've got four slash lines that are kind of, you know, thinner and thicker. And then you've got vertical rows of red dots. It looks to me like someone's testing their paint brush. But I'm not, I'm not claiming that's what it actually is. Sounds like this is the beginnings of a basic pictorial pictogram language,

Christine Malec:

If I understand correctly, not all of the art was painted on with pigments. Can we talk about the ways that engraving or using the texture of the surface was incorporated?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, this is really interesting. So you know that the painting is perhaps visually more spectacular. But I think that the the number of engravings on walls, actually, it's much more numerous, there are a lot of engravings on walls. Sometimes these are lines or marks that are just like, you know, hash marks or something that are made with a rock or apparently, some Flint was turned into like a small crude pic, that could be used to scrape away the surfaces. And so sometimes this would be done to, you know, just make lines on the wall, again, who knows why or what those lines were representing, sometimes, you an artist would do an animal in outline, so you would do a line drawing of an animal, but it would be engraved in the wall. So an engraving that shows the outer edges of a deer with the antlers coming up, and then maybe even a little dot for the eye, which is a pretty sophisticated bit of, you know, facial rendering or feature rendering. And so, you know, sometimes these were just line line etchings in the wall, sometimes then those lines would be painted in, so you would both affect the wall the cave surface with with an etching and then you would paint on top of it. But like you said, there's also this an interesting use of the, the typography of the wall, the, of the texture of the wall. So an artist might do an etching of an animal and use some of the bumps, the surface texture to enhance their art. It's sometimes difficult to see this in photographs. But I've got a I've got a picture here of an engraving of a horse. So this is a horse on a cave wall. And right about the belly height of this horse. So it's a horse in, in profile, always animals and figures are, are done in profile. So you're looking at the side of this horse. And right along the belly, that the cave wall kind of bulges a little bit, it's a little bit bumpy. And the the underside of the belly is right under that bump in the cave wall. And then the neck of the of the horse is above. So you've got really this bumpy stretch across the middle that toward the body of the horse. And so it makes it look like the horses three dimensional, it looks like a relief carving of a horse on the wall, which is really interesting. It's tactile, it's a little bit three dimensional, which is kind of interesting for etching in a wall. There are also etchings of human figures. The human figures are much more rare in these. In cave cave art, it's usually animals, if they're if there's a figurative representation, it's usually animals. But there is a very famous etching. It's a collection of 16 different figures in a group. But it's a little bit tricky because in, in cave art, there's almost never a floor, no one paints the floor or the ground. No one paints trees and mountains. There's no landscape so it's a little bit hard to orient sometimes. So this one etching has a collection of 16 different figures. These are faceless figures, but not stick figures. These are fully rendered with, you know, outlined bodies, no hands or feet. These are tapered hands or feet, which is a really interesting style that happens with animals and humans. I imagine there's a technical reason it's really really difficult to paint hands, you know, fingers and toes, or to in this case, Edge fingers and toes. And same with facial features. But what it does is create a very distinctive look a style to this to this art. So this one cave etching of 16 figures is is I think, rather unique. In the world of etching in cave art.

Christine Malec:

One of the directions scholarship has gone which I think is so interesting is to consider where exactly the art would have been viewed from and so there's a couple of ways that I've read The displays out. So an animal will only look like itself. If you look at it from one specific spot in the cave, because the cave wall has been used, the contours of the wall have been used. And another example I've read is that the best place to view a particular set of cave art also happened just happens to be the most acoustically perfect spot in the cave. And that the third way that I've read is, is archaeologists, trying to use natural light. So putting a fire, for example, building a fire where it looks as though people in prehistoric times had built a fire. And so viewing the art in the way that the people of the time did. And so I wonder whether looking at this stuff in photographs is in some way profoundly unsatisfying.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, that's a really good point. When you take a look at some of these images, and photographs, there's no situational context, you know, you're often in a cramped space. So if you're going to take what we consider to be a good clean photo, of, of one of these pieces, you got to get close. And you can and you take a picture of just the the specific item or symbol or representation, and then that's it, often with a harsh flash. So the colors aren't necessarily accurate, certainly not how they would have been originally viewed, like you say. And so it's, it's, it's a little bit unsatisfying in there. Also, there's so out of context, you have no idea how large they are, you know, how big how small how they relate to the rest of the surroundings. And then if you do take those pictures, you have to do so with a with a funky lens, right. So you do it with a fisheye lens or something which distorts so you can get more of the of the cave, in view of the of the camera lens, you have to distort it in order to do so. So there are some very cool pictures that make you feel the ceiling overhead. Because you know, you're taking it from the ground up. So you can see a person's head poking up from the corner of the picture from the bottom corner. And then overhead are all these paintings, because a lot of these paintings were done on ceilings of caves. And that's really cool. But again, it's not quite the same as being there and seeing it I love the idea of seeing it with the natural firelight that makes so much sense to me. Just instinctively, because that's how this would have been viewed that's how it would have been created would have been viewed. That's how everyone would have the time would have experienced this just makes sense.

Christine Malec:

The most well known and flashy cave art is of animals. And so can we talk about the representational stuff that represents things that we recognize today?

JJ Hunt:

Totally. These are the real showstoppers, right, the figurative cave paintings, mostly, the subjects are animals. So these are animals that would have been encountered or hunted during the ice age. So mammoths, horses, lions, deer, or ox. So these are like ox ancestors of modern cattle. But what's interesting is often the things that people would have been hunting in using for food or not the animals that would have been represented in their art, so they will be represented and other people's art. So there's something maybe about the animals being, I don't know about unusual but revered and a little bit more sacred, perhaps than just the day to day animal. And so one thing I wanted to talk about is that there might be a notion that these paintings look quote, unquote, primitive, right? You talked about the way cave art is sometimes represented in popular culture and in cartoons, they you're hit the nail on the head, there really is a there's a trope, a comic strip or really a comic single panel trope of cavemen painting on cave walls. The New Yorker loves these, one of my favorites from the New Yorker is two cave people in a cave and they're wearing the fur one piece skirt that goes over one shoulder, long hair, and they are in a cave, there's a little fire behind them and they are standing against a cave wall. And one of them has a like a very rudimentary brush in their hand with maybe even a stick of charcoal in on the wall or two stick figures. And that's it. They're just two stick figures. And the person standing beside the artist says "Maybe it needs a caption?". And this cartoon has under it, "It begins."

Christine Malec:

Chuckle

JJ Hunt:

So this is the idea that gets put out there a lot. Lots of stick figures in cave art, lots of childish, simplistic drawings, and that's not really accurate. There are some stick figures on on cave walls, but they're by no means simplistic and they're definitely not childish. There's a really distinctive style to cave paintings, it's, that's absolutely clear to me and not you know, I'm quite uneducated, I'm just a casual observer, but I can, there is a style here that is absolutely as clear to me, if you took a cave painting off, you know, off of a wall, a cave wall and France, completely removed it from its context, put it on a poster, I would be able to look at that as a casual observer and say, Oh, that's a cave painting, I would no lie early. Yeah, the palette, those colors, I would know all that color palette, I would know the style. But that this idea that the feet, the hooves and and limbs come tapered to a point, the way that the animals are rendered, there's a style of fluidity to the movement. So that I always think of these cave paintings that and again, we're talking about a huge range over centuries. But you know, the cave paintings that we know from France that are the most prominent and you know, and that are most available online, I always think they have a bit of a mid century illustration kind of look, like a graphic design from the 1950's kind of look. Very expressive simple lines and shapes, not simplistic, but clean. And a lot of the complex details are removed and replaced with the stylish choices like I say, these, these hooves that are replaced in with like tapered limbs that come to a tapered point, animals with suede backs and rounded bellies. So these are kind of parallel lines to the back and belly. That adds to the idea of fluidity and movement. Visually, this becomes part of the look. And like I said, always rendered in profiles. So you never seen these animals from the front or from behind always in profile, somewhat flat, but with a surprising amount of depth. Because of a few really key things, one being body parts overlap, overlapping in art is is called occlusion. So occlusion is when something closer to us blocks the view of something that is behind it. And so in these renderings, the legs on on a horse's body, the legs that are closest to us are fully rendered, their their outlines are unbroken, but the legs on the far side of the animal tuck behind those legs. Now, that seems obvious to us now. But that was fundamental to the understanding of depth. And I mean that early artists had this figured out is remarkable. In the Renaissance, artists were still actively trying to figure out the rules of overlap and occlusion. So for this to be instinctive for these artists, like 10s of 1000s of years, I mean, it's absolutely remarkable. And they were also able, these artists are able to create depth by conjuring their colors. So in some cases, you've got like silhouetted animals, so you've got a horse or a or an ox or whatever. And it's a silhouette, it's all painted in black, there are no details whatsoever. But in some cases, color is used very wisely to create contours. So I've got an image here of a horse, it's a it's kind of a wide belly looks like a fairly plump horse. And it's filled in largely with a with like a reddish brown color, but not uniformly. So the reddish brown color has a swoop to it, that that is parallel to the belly. And then only part of the of the hind leg is painted in this color as well. And what you end up with is, is a strip of white at the bottom of the belly that comes up around the haunch and creates the contour that distinguishes the the back of the belly from those that hind leg and you create an amazing amount of depth by working with your colors that way, really interesting, but not universal, I should say like some of the cave paintings feature more transparent subjects. So you've got like herds of animals, where all of their bodies overlap one another. So these are just outlines or maybe outlines where the heads are shaded in this kind of charcoal, the black color, but the bodies overlap. So you see all of the legs, all of the limbs, all of the swooping bellies, and it really adds to this frenetic energy. It's incredibly impressive and evocative for these paintings really cool.

Christine Malec:

I've often heard that the images of animals convey a real sense of life and movement and I've tried to think through this through And as a as a blind person who's not who has not seen, you know, static images. One way I got to one place I got to thinking but was imagining myself about just in a split second before I run up a flight of stairs. And so that posture of being maybe on the ball of your foot and sort of leaning forward, but can you say something about that aspect of the animals and how they like they're not sitting for a portrait, right. And the sense I've always gotten is that there's a real sense of life and movement.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, that and I love your example of imagining your body about to run. And when you when you capture that as a still image, either in painting or a photograph, or whatever that movement is clear to, to someone who's, who is looking at that, even if it's just a still image. So, you know, a classic example is, is someone standing if you take a picture, or you create a painting of someone standing in the weight is equal on both feet, so they are standing perfectly straight, it looks so rigid, it looks unnatural. If you shift the weight onto one hip, so it's just the slightest shift of the hip, you can see that shift of the hip and suddenly it looks more lifelike, it looks more real. And that's just with a slight shift of weight to one hip, if you've got these animals, and again, swayed bellies and suede back. So they're bent in a way that illustrates an idea of movement. Often the hooves are, you know, front legs, or out and back legs or back so that there's a stretching of these animals as if there's almost a gallop, happening, the way that the the overlap happens. So there's a blurring effect of the overlap of these animals. All of that adds up, you know, the curving lines in cartoons, I remember being taught I took a cartooning class when I was a little kid, and being taught how to make action lines. So these are little curving lines around someone's if someone's throwing a baseball, you put a couple of curvy, like brackets parentheses, you know, around the outside of the hand to indicate that that's a hand that's moving.

Christine Malec:

Ohhh!

JJ Hunt:

I loved movement lines. And I would put them everywhere in my early sketches. Now these don't have that, it's not that these have those kinds of secondary lines that are outside of the animal. But the shapes of the rumps of these animals has that same kind of curve to them. There's, there's something about that curve that implies movement. It's not rigid. It's not straight, it's not Angular, round, and curvy and moving. And I think that has a lot to do with why these look so vibrant and alive.

Christine Malec:

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Background info
Materials
Handprints
Symbols
Engravings
Figurative painting