Lessons from the Chauvet Cave

It is fast becoming old news that the coronavirus pandemic has heralded a wave of unprecedented hardship and uncertainty, both in its scale and persistence, worldwide. 2020 has been the year that gave us, among other things, a Dublin bereft of pints – something straight out of the Book of Revelations, at its most apocalyptic – and humanity’s usual low hum of existential dread has been rising in decibels with each passing month. This dread is only exacerbated by the Beast that is a rolling 24-hour news cycle which, by nature, relies on a steady dispensation of horror stories and schadenfreude to retain its viewership. 

It is all too easy to find oneself caught up in this cycle. Crisis clouds perspective and we draw fixed lines in the sand between the horror of our perceived bad times and the idealised good times of recent memory. In reality, it is never so simple, and for our own sanity, we must force ourselves to reckon with the seemingly paradoxical matter of good things being borne out of an overtly bad situation. 

The myriad examples of this phenomenon include much-welcomed declines in carbon emissions and waterway pollution that have emerged as a direct result of harsh national lockdowns. A more personal source of comfort has been the move on part of museums and galleries throughout the country to provide open access to their extensive archives of public domain artefacts (See: The Scottish National Museum and The Met for just two examples).

In this vein, I would like to raise awareness of the Chauvet cave, and the Google-driven initiative which has provided a ground-breaking online resource for the public to experience the cave’s artistic wonders in a virtual reality exhibition, completely free of charge. 

Released in March to what was, even in the context of the pandemic, a criminally low level of aplomb, the project provides unbridled access to what has been hailed as “the world’s oldest art gallery”. Located in the Gorges de l’Ardèche in south-eastern France, the cave is host to thousands of immaculately preserved wall paintings, with much of it carbon-dated to the Aurignacian period of the Upper Palaeolithic, making it more than 30,000 years old. 

Trapped in time after being sealed off from a rockfall some 23,000 years ago, it was rediscovered in 1994 by a team of speleologists headed by Jean-Marie Chauvet (from whom it bears its namesake) and has since attained UNESCO World Heritage status, owing to its reputation as possibly the most famous prehistoric art site in the world. 

A quick dive into the cave’s contents affirms its right to such honours – the site is a bona fide treasure trove for archaeologists and palaeontologists alike. Over four hundred metres of intertwining chambers yield an impressive inventory of images that display a genuine mastery of artistic techniques by our forefathers. There are harmonious blends of paints and engravings, and a surprising precision in anatomical accuracy – contemporary animals such as mammoths, horses, aurochs, and cave lions feature heavily. The utilisation of the natural bends and crevices of the cave’s interiors, along with adept shading methods, is so effective in depicting the movements and scale of the animals that it almost seems anachronistic to think that these works were created when most of the Northern Hemisphere remained frozen under glacial ice. 

The stampeding herds portrayed in the ‘naturalistic masterpiece’ of the Panel of Horses provide ample testimony that humanity’s capacity for artistic genius has been elemental since prehistory. Upon the cave’s full excavation, a local French lawmaker concurred, stating: “This artist has now been recognised, may he forgive us for waiting 36,000 years.”

This cultural cornucopia had previously been inaccessible to the general public for the purposes of continued preservation. A full-sized replica was commissioned by the French government for €55 million, opening in 2015, and has proved itself as a durable tourist trap. However, the inauthenticity of the facsimile is reportedly palpable, and there is understandably something about the experience that fails to elicit the sense of awe that should come from viewing the earliest known site of human culture in Europe. 

Enter Google Arts & Culture, who worked in collaboration with the French public body who were behind the replica’s construction to bring unbridled digital access to Chauvet in an online exhibition that is free to all. Viewers can take advantage of extensive 3D models and a virtual reality experience, painstakingly composited from a cache of two decades’ worth of digital data. The tour is signposted with screeds of information and immersive storytelling that seeks to shed light on the paintings’ origins, and the possible ritual and shamanic functions of the site at large. Moreover, the project rightly fits the legacy of rock art into the wider lexicon of artistic development, delving into the lasting and direct influences that such discoveries have had on artists, ranging from the abstract expressionism of Pierre Soulages to the works of Picasso himself.

The sum of all these parts is, I believe, an invaluable educational resource that points to an encouraging trend of democratised digital learning, a trend that is only proliferating in light of the COVID era. I am drawn to invoke the words of another French artist, whose pertinence has taken on frightening new depths in recent times. In The Plague, Albert Camus writes: “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

What better way, then, to elevate oneself than in the art of learning something new. The original curators of Chauvet’s priceless works maintained their intellectual integrity while cohabiting with cave lions; I am sure we can carry the torch in our own trying times.

Written by Jack McGlone


Adams, Laurie. Art Across Time. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2011.

Bradshaw Foundation: www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/chauvet_cave_UNESCO_world_heritage_site.php Chauvet, J, M. Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave. The Oldest Known Paintings in the World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996.

The Google Arts & Culture Exhibition:

McGivern, Hannah. “Google unlocks prehistoric art of France’s Chauvet cave.”The Art Newspaper. March, 2020. www.theartnewspaper.com/news/google-unlocks-prehistoric-art-of-france-s-chauvet-cave

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