This post is Part I in a series highlighting some insightful documentary films from the past decade on art and artmaking.
In Werner Herzog’s award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), we are given rare access to the subterranean chambers of the Chauvet caves in southern France. Here, deep below the surface of the earth – many thousands of years ago – our distant ancestors covered the walls with line and colour. Exquisitely rendered bison and deer, horses which flicker in torchlight, human handprints confidently displayed in red ochre… these underground masterpieces are some of the earliest known examples of human art, dating back some 25,000 years. The caves are zealously guarded by the French government, but Herzog (and his 3-D cameras) were allowed in under strict regulations in order to record the paintings for posterity. It is fascinating to think of these elaborate and beautiful images, buried in darkness for so many millennia, coming to light in our own century. One can barely conceive of the immense age of these painted “dreams,” stretching back beyond any known civilization to the mysterious origins of humanity – they are invaluable artifacts, immaculately preserved visual records of the very “beginning of art.”
The paintings raise many questions. Who painted them? What purpose did they serve? Were these caves the site of cultic activity, sacred spaces adorned with holy or totemic images? Or did they serve a more practical purpose? What were the artists trying to accomplish through their art? Remarkably, the researchers in the caves have isolated one anonymous individual “artist,” based on the crooked finger which can be seen in his/her handprint, whose handiwork reoccurs throughout the cave. Who was this prehistoric individual, and what might this ancient maker tell us about the vocation of the artist, about the spiritual and symbolic nature of their task? Did they consider what they were doing to be “art” in anything close to the way we now conceive of the term? We might also ask whether there can be religion without art and artmaking – symbols, rituals, images – or if they have always been inextricably bound together.
The brilliant Alejandro Garcìa-Rivera traces the “beginning of art” back to the hidden “deep art” buried in dark prehistoric caverns like the Chauvet caves. Writing of the famous paintings at Lascaux, he remarks:
…one wonders which is more impressive: that the first humans were capable of creating paintings of such striking beauty or that someone should be moved deeply by these ancient paintings thirty thousand years after their creation!
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a testament to the affective power of art, the way it rekindles our sense of wonder – what Garcìa-Rivera terms a prelapsarian “innocence,” a “glimpse into the origins of our own beauty.” It is amazing that these incredibly ancient drawings are so skillfully and creatively made, beautiful and provocative even in relation to subsequent art history. (The dynamic “motion” of the horses is reminiscent of Cubism.) But what is perhaps more surprising is that we share a common humanity with these unknown ancient artists through their work, that we are stirred deep within our souls by the experience of beauty across the ages.
Garcìa-Rivera suggests that we ought to simply define aesthetics as the study of “what moves the human heart.” Here, deep in these ancient caves painted with bears and bison, is a starting point for a “theology of art” which supports and nourishes a “theological aesthetics”; in wonder and awe, we recover a sense of our own primordial beauty, the “mystery of our own creatureliness.” As we regard these cave paintings across the ages, we have a sense of the “communal” dimension of art and creativity, a reminder that to make art is essential to what it means to be human. And finally, even here in these dark, strange caves we find a faint echo of the transcendent beauty of God. To the extent that Herzog’s gentle lens has been able to open this concealed world of prehistoric beauty to us, we can be profoundly grateful.
Brett Potter is currently a PhD student in theology and art at the Toronto School of Theology (University of St. Michael’s College) and previously did an MCS in Christianity and the Arts at Regent College in Vancouver. He is also an active video artist and musician.