18 Pages

Satire and the visual arts

WithJohn T. Gilmore

Evidence of the human urge to give an idea visual expression dates back to long before we have any record of what we might call literature, or even of language itself. Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us into the Chauvet Cave in southern France, where the extraordinary paintings, including vividly naturalistic horses, stags, bison, lions, bears and even rhinoceroses, date back as far as 32,000 years ago (Herzog, 2010). Since the Chauvet Cave was first discovered in 1994, the use of uranium series dating has suggested that a painting in El Castillo cave in northern Spain is at least 40,800 years old, raising the possibility that some cave art may have been created not by modern humans, but by Neanderthals (Jones, 2012). Cave paintings and related forms of rock art, such as petroglyphs, that is, images created by engraving a rock surface rather than by applying pigments, are found in many different parts of the world (Brodrick, 1948; Dubelaar, 1986). Even with recent advances in scientific techniques, however, such as the uranium series dating which has allowed paintings in Church Hole in Cresswell Crags in England to be dated to over 12,000 years ago (Bahn and Pettitt, 2009), establishing the chronology of a given site can be difficult, but trying to establish what such images might mean is even more 157difficult. Thurman (2008) notes the very diverse theories developed about the Chauvet paintings in less than 20 years since their first discovery, but herself indulges in speculation about one of the best known of the cave paintings from Lascaux, also in southern France, which were found in 1940. This shows the sketchy outline of a human figure, which is stretched out and perhaps lying down. Next to him is a more naturalistic bison, and the scene is usually understood as showing a hunter who has been gored by the bison, with a line near the human figure representing the spear which he has dropped. Some more or less circular lines coming from the bison’s belly are assumed to be its intestines, and it has been suggested (Brodrick, 1948, 20) that the bison, having killed the hunter, has been gored in turn by the woolly rhinoceros pictured to the left, apparently moving away from the scene. Thurman observes that the bison’s head is turned away from the hunter and comments, “but it might have an ironic smile. Could the subject be hubris?” If so, we might be looking at an example of visual satire from 16,000 to 18,000 years ago, but we would do well to note Bahn and Pettitt’s warning against the all too common tendency to over-interpret prehistoric art.