[Animals were there at the beginning of art. But how did we get from Chauvet to "Dogs Playing Poker" and beyond? That's one of the questions 13.7 will be asking with this month's series, "Ars Animalis"—art of the animals.]
It's hard to start thinking about animals in art without thinking about Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, a cave in southern France. That's where art began, at least according to the current archaeological record. (Chauvet was discovered in 1994. The more famous painted caves at Lascaux, which were discovered in 1940, are about half as old.)
As Judith Thurman puts it in her excellent 2008 article about Chauvet in The New Yorker:
"Future discoveries may alter the math, but, as it now stands, forty-five hundred generations separate the earliest Homo sapiens from the earliest cave artists, and between the artists and us another fifteen hundred generations have descended the birth canal, learned to walk upright, mastered speech and the use of tools, reached puberty, reproduced, and died."
Those early artists, who had the urge to render what they experienced in a lasting, realistic—and perhaps even symbolic or ritualistic way—chose as their main subjects not the landscapes, not the ragged hills or deep valleys of the Ardèche, not the clouds or the sun or the moon. Perhaps surprisingly, there are no complete human figures. There is something that looks like a woman's legs and genitals, which may be the birth of the "Venus" myth. But mostly, they painted animals. And primarily lions, rhinos and mammoths.
Jean Clottes writes on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website:
"From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made. Along with cave bears (which were far larger than grizzly bears), the lions, mammoths, and rhinos account for 63 percent of the identified animals, a huge percentage compared to later periods of cave art. Horses, bison, ibex, reindeer, red deer, aurochs, Megaceros deer, musk-oxen, panther, and owl are also represented. An exceptional image of the lower body of a woman was found associated with a bison figure. Many images of large red dots are, indeed, partial handprints made with the palm of the hand. Red hand stencils and complete handprints have also been discovered."
More at: Cave of Chauvet-Pont-D'Arc
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image: Lions hunting Bison, Chauvet Cave. A pride of lions hunt bison, one of the rarest scenes ever found in Paleolithic art.