The other evening we went to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It is a documentary on the recently discovered (1994) Chauvet cave where hundreds of drawings were found. It was discovered by a group of people who work for the Ministry of Culture in France so they totally understood that the cave needed to be immediately sealed from tourists. As they began to explore it, they put plastic down wherever they walked inside the cave and did not touch the walls. To preserve the pristine drawings, the only people allowed inside are scientists and obviously Herzog and his crew but only for a very short time. The film crew had to bring equipment that would not create any heat. In fact, they had to wear special suits that they put on inside the cave and had to walk on a two foot wide metal walkway that had been installed inside the cave. Another reason they could not stay in the caves very long at any one time was because the levels of radon and Co2 are very high.
Herzog made the documentary using a 3D camera. Though he is against the gimmickiness of such technology, he felt that in order to convey the way the neolithic artists placed the images on the round and bumpy surface of the cave walls was important in understanding the images themselves.
And the images are phenomenal, modern even. The confidence of the charcoal lines with which they were drawn are sophisticated and fully reflect a precise understanding of the animals that are rendered. There are repeated legs and horns that are meant to convey movement and with what must have been flickering torches this movement must have felt even more palpable. Some of these drawings are even more animated with some animals’ mouths open in the process of making sound. These drawings have real weight, some of them are rendered with actual shading, way before the romans used such techniques. In fact these drawings have been carbon-dated at 32,000 years ago, the oldest drawings yet discovered. There are some drawings that complete or are on top of the older ones done some 3500 years later.
Over 25 years ago, JB and I visited the caves at Les Eyzies and Peche Merle in France. I remember the awesome experience, the clearly sacred spaces of these underground cathedrals. The stillness and quiet, the sometimes claustrophobic and then expansive feel of the variety of spaces. The absolute darkness, a thick black (they did turn off the lights at one point) feeling totally blind with eyes wide open. The cool temperature under the earth while it was steamy hot on the surface. I remember feeling awe and respect for the mysterious drama which must have played out in the meanderings of these caves.
This documentary truly conveys the magic of this remarkable cave and the spirit of the sacred rituals that took place there. It demonstrates the incredible observation and intelligence of neolithic people. It energizes possibilities and lifts art back to its rightful place at a sacred center of what it means to be human.
In order to preserve the pristine nature of the cave, a replica of key parts of the cave will be built a couple of kilometers away along with a museum. The plans are for it to open in 2014.