Paintings on a Wall

I can’t stop thinking about 30,000 years ago.

I just don’t seem to get to movies much anymore; it’s truly not even much of a temptation. We have a local theater, though, with cushy velvet seats, homemade cookies and oatmeal stout beer so sometimes you have to give in to all that and just buy a ticket. A movie about neolithic cave drawings, of all things, came up at the theater so I opted to see that one. I’m sure I’ve never seen a movie about that!

In other venues the film was offered in 3-D which sounds terribly hokey, but I guess it was used to nice effect showing the stony undulations of the cave wall surface.  Anyway, my theater has beer, as I mentioned, but no 3-D. A technological trade-off, I suppose.

It’s called “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and it’s a lovely film, allowing the viewer a glimpse of this world that will never be fully opened to the outside (for its own protection — other caves have had mold issues from the breath of tourists).

The drawings found in Chauvet cave were of such exquisite quality that when they were discovered in the 90s, it was originally thought that they represented the very pinnacle of the art, so would likely be newer than the known caves, but when the dating came back it shocked everyone, as the work is evidently much older than the examples in places like Lascaux, in the realm of 30,000-35,000 years old.

It cast my mind in a painful direction, however. I immediately felt queasy, acutely aware of the ugly grid where we reside, everyone with fears, but hard to battle creatures. All in the presence of unsatisfying agents pressed together as facsimiles of nature and shelter. It’s all so terribly ugly, especially here in North America where the strip malls scream loudly, even though they are half empty most of the time. I want to close my eyes when I see them, but I don’t since I’m driving. And I want to vomit if they house businesses that leech off the unfortunate, and that’s most of the time. I don’t think there’s any place left to just be, as many of the Occupy movement participants have found out. They want to legislate away the strays. In all of this your mind must be as a blueprint, easily read as you pull into your allotted spot, if you are fortunate enough to have one.

Would anyone find beauty in our reproductions, our factory pressed wheels with no creator beneath? Or at least not a creator we dare consider — probably a soft spoken young person in a sweatshop of sorts in a far flung place.  This cave is in also in a far flung place. (I say that about every place I’m not). It’s a valley in the South of France with little but vineyards in the immediate vicinity. The area used to be home to every animal Maurice Sendak could imagine. Modern humans walked with them as did Neanderthal man. Chauvet Cave was hidden for such a time due to a rock slide; the depictions of long gone species have this one place they still can live.

I wonder if we could all draw with such fluid strokes if we weren’t so trapped by highways and right angles? Was he unique, that man who did so much of the work in the cave? If I were there, I’d hold his head in my hands, peering past the eyes to figure it out.  Why did you do this? But I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

But the reason wouldn’t have words any more than those drawings do, just a compelling pull.

One of the bison has eight legs. I’m sure in firelight it looks like he is running. Everything is beautiful seen in the glow of a fire; fluorescent light might give you a seizure.

That one artist stands out because his hand prints are literally everywhere, and you know it’s him because of the crooked — maybe once broken –pinkie finger. I’d like to have tasted the red ochre off that live finger, old dust even 30,000 years ago, made of all manner of earth, the heavier flakes from the furnace of a star. I wonder if they felt that original source in the ochre, even if they didn’t have words to describe it. I don’t have words to describe it either.

But always, the broad, sweeping strokes.  I think they are still alive, more than our over-duplicated forms, copied yesterday, and always from hard lines. We don’t ever seem to use anything else.

I hope he made these images because he wanted to show he was part of the world of carnivores as well as massive grazers, a frail but clever participant who had no need to destroy anything, just to give them a spot to run. I don’t think the images would be so beautiful if the mind behind them wanted dominion. That’s what our world carries and demands, always more than what it really takes to survive.

I want to see a world with softer lines that blur into the incorporeal, not the cages we sit in and pass the time with anxiety and clutter. How did we come to this unnatural place? There’s no words for that either and I don’t know the reason.

The things that can cross your mind when the hard lines start to dissolve.

Kathleen Wallace Peine welcomes reader response. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Kathleen.