A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The 11,000-year-old mouthless faces of rain spirits called Wandjinas peerfrom a rock in northwest Australia's Kimberley region. (Courtesy Jean Clottes)
A thumb-sized ivory statuette from a cave in southwestern France is about 25,000 years old. (Courtesy P. Ceccaldi)
When Paleolithic artists first pressed brittle lumps of charcoal onto the coarse surfaces of cave walls, they never could have imagined that their sketches would one day be among the most studied and controversial art in the world. Tens of thousands of years later, debates now rage among scholars over everything from the images' dates to why they were created. In a new book, Cave Art (Phaidon Press, $90), art historian Jean Clottes focuses on questions of aesthetics and technique.
He discusses cave art as art. About a drawing of rhinoceroses and horses from Chauvet Cave in France, he writes, "They were no doubt painted by the same person, who made very skillful use of the wall surface, mixing charcoal with surface clay to obtain various hues and achieve a range of effects...A true masterpiece!" He also offers insight into how to appreciate this mysterious art form, pointing out that the artists would have worked in the dark under the flickering light of oil lamps, which would have reflected off the artwork's surface, creating unearthly auras around the figures.
Featuring some 300 color pictures of decorated caves and rock shelters and related artifacts found in 85 locations from Norway to Australia, the book provides a rich variety of artistic expression, from Lascaux's famous herds of chunky bison to less-well-known engravings from Niger of baby giraffes nuzzling in the necks of their mothers. The lively writing that accompanies each work makes Cave Art easily accessible to novices, but its sumptuous photographs make it a must-have visual reference for experts.