MONTIGNAC, France — Pixar, eat your heart out. Cro-Magnon artists 20,000 years ago painted a picture of a snorting horse whose head seems to move upwards on the wall of the Lascaux cave in southwest France.
That, at least, is the illusion visitors have when they see the meticulous reproductions of the famous Lascaux cave paintings in a new visitor centre that was opened by then-French President Francois Hollande in December and is expected to attract 400,000 visitors a year.
Lascaux is practically a byword for prehistoric art. Since its discovery by four teenagers and their dog Robot in September, 1940, the underground art gallery crammed with more than 1,400 paintings or line drawings of bison, aurochs, reindeer, a bear, lions, horses, ibex and even a bird-headed humanoid figure has been called “the Sistine Chapel of cave art” or “the prehistoric Versailles”.
Lascaux 4, as the latest incarnation is known, is housed in a vast, 8,500-square-meter building that swoops along the bottom of the hillside where the original Lascaux is located.
After attracting as many as 2,000 visitors a day for years, the paintings in the original cave began to show damage from the changes in atmospheric conditions. It was closed to all but specialists in 1963. Lascaux 2, a replica that opened in 1983, was overwhelmed by more tourists than it was ever meant to serve. Cro-Magnon humans, and their cave paintings, are big box office in southwest France.
A scaled-down touring version of the paintings is known as Lascaux 3, so that leaves the new centre, which personnel at the site say cost upwards of 60 million euros, to carry the designation Lascaux 4.
This time the replicators, architects and the rest of the design team nailed it. Not only is this the most complete reproduction to date of the original cave — some 90 percent, our guide said — the building’s massive size is used to add exhibitions and features that were never possible in the limited space of Lascaux 2.
View of the Vezere Valley
The tour, in groups of about 30, begins on an observation deck atop the building where you can see the Vezere River valley and the hillside of the original Lascaux. A gentle descent past speakers that play sounds depicting the voices of the teenaged explorers and their barking dog brings you to the replica cave’s entrance.
Inside, the temperature is about 10C cooler than outside and it takes time to adjust to the low light. But as you walk through the reproduction, the light comes up a bit and the guide uses a laser pointer to draw attention to details. One such: two bison, back to back, one painted in winter brown, the other red and black for spring. Conversation, though, is kept to a minimum. “This is like a sanctuary,” guide Nadege Thieres says.
After touring the one-to-one scale model, visitors exit into a vast room where the sections of the cave are displayed separately. This allows more time to focus on the artists’ technique, such as using natural contours in the rock to add a 3D effect. The displays also use white-light outlines to bring out details. One such illuminated display shows a horse’s head moving upwards — in seven stages that make it almost seem animated.
A 3D film taken inside the original Lascaux seems superfluous after walking through the excellent reproduction. More successful is a diorama that uses stages mounted with props and video screens to depict the initial scepticism which met the discovery of prehistoric cave art in the 19th century, through to the modern efforts to try to determine what these observant and ingenious early artists wanted to convey. Was Lascaux a holy site or sanctuary, as some researchers believe? Was it a place of instruction?
“By conserving it (Lascaux) we hope to one day understand a civilisation that has forever disappeared,” a woman researcher says in one of the videos.
The tour ends in a suite of rooms dedicated to showing the impact of the Lascaux paintings and other cave art on modern artists, from Klein and Klee to Miro and Picasso. A huge horizontal video display shows paintings or sculptures by the moderns, juxtaposed with the prehistoric art that may have been an inspiration. Visitors can select their own dozen or so favourites from the works on display and when completed, the self-curated exhibition is projected on the ceiling — until the next “curator” comes along.
A quote from Picasso says it all: “Lascaux is the proof there is no progress in art and since then nothing new has been invented.” Lascaux 4 underscores that as never before.
— Michael Roddy