A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A frieze at Font de Gaume shows how artists 19,000 years ago used 3-D perspective.
The next best thing to actually seeing the prehistoric cave art of southern France's Dordogne region is reading about it, as lovingly and meticulously described by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon in Stepping Stones ($30.00, Yale University Press), a rapturous guide through five major Ice Age sites, each open to the public, and each with its own magical beauty.
An eminent scholar of prehistoric anthropology and French cave art, Desdemaines-Hugon leads readers through the region's most renowned decorated caves.
At Bernifal, she has an "unforgettable encounter." Amid paintings of mammoths, aurochs, bears, and bison, a realistic human face stares from the wall, "one of the most moving visions of all cave art," she writes. "A small portrait outlined in black with expressive, lively eyes that seem to be looking into ours through the glazed, calcified coating of the wall, part astonished, part questioning."
In describing a gallery beyond a central chamber at Font de Gaume, Desdemaines-Hugon notes how Paleolithic artists invented many ways of depicting movement and perspective, including trompe l'oeil effects not seen again until the Renaissance. She singles out a finely outlined bison with its head in profile facing right and its horns turned to an almost frontal view. This "twisted perspective," she observes, makes the head seem to be turning, especially to a viewer walking by. "Imagine what this would look like in flickering candlelight! As if it were not enough that the animals were easily identifiable, they also had to be moving. They had to be alive," she writes. And what's remarkable, she adds, is how close it is to contemporary art forms. Picasso himself recognized these paintings as the work of true masters.