Perhaps no other surviving artifacts of human prehistory are cloaked in beauty and mystery quite like the cave paintings at Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, and similar subterranean sites dating to the Upper Paleolithic. Upon seeing the paintings at Lascaux, a humbled Picasso famously said, “We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years.”

But even that timeline underestimates the truly deep time of human creativity. The Chauvet cave contains paintings that are 30,000 to 33,000 years old, and there is evidence of even earlier artistic activity at Blombos cave in South Africa, dating back some 100,000 years. But the art at Chauvet is noteworthy for its astounding complexity and beauty—a testament to the so-called “Aurignacian” culture of Upper Paleolithic humans.

Chauvet, which was discovered in 1994 by amateur cave explorers, is situated near Pont d’Arc in the Ardèche region of southern France. The cave was closed by the French government to prevent damage that would be caused by tourism. Exhaled carbon dioxide and humidity from thousands of tourists caused the disintegration of cave art at Altamira, which was subsequently closed in 1963.

In 2010, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog received permission from French authorities to film in Chauvet, albeit only in short intervals. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which premiered in the U.S. in 2011, is Herzog’s contribution to the ongoing fascination with early human cave art. And it is no meager contribution: Herzog’s documentary on Chauvet is shot in 3D—a format that he had previously avoided as too “gimmicky.” For more on the film, including trailers, see the official website: Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Cineastes will recognize Herzog’s unmistakeable style and idiosyncratic thematic foci: the fascination with what lies beyond civilization in Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982); the eerie and lyrical narrative voice that warns us about the dangers of romanticizing “nature” in Grizzly Man (2005).

The film is all the more compelling because of the cave’s inaccessibility to the general public. But Herzog’s work is unlike other documentary efforts that aim for sober realism or journalistic accuracy. With casual references to Richard Wagner and the art of German Romanticism, Herzog’s narration is tinged with an element of melancholia and introspection that may be, for some viewers, almost as unfamiliar and eerie as the caves themselves.

Watch Werner Herzog’s interview on YouTube: “What I Saw in the Cave.”
For a picture gallery from Chauvet, visit the Bradshaw Foundation’s website.

Published On: February 6, 2012

Jiro Tanaka

Jiro Tanaka

Jiro Tanaka received his Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton (2002) and his bachelor’s degree from Harvard (1993). He has taught at Clark University and Vassar College, where he served as Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities. In 2008, he was a Visiting Scholar in UCLA’s program for Human Complex Systems. Dr. Tanaka has published widely on topics in literary theory, German intellectual history, second language acquisition, and “bio-cultural” approaches to the humanities.

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