Monthly Archives: January 2014

winogrand hollywood

Curiosity is the libido of art, and photographer Garry Winogrand was its visual Don Juan.

Over a 40-year career, he photographed with prodigal fascination the cities, foibles and mores of America. He pointed his Leica, with its wide- angle lens, at a roiling chaos of visual information. Anything might tickle his curiosity.

So prolific was he, promiscuous some might say, that at his death in 1984 at age 52, he left behind a third of a million exposures either undeveloped or unedited. He could never catch up in the darkroom with the conquests of his shutter button.

To be more specific: He ran through film like an alcoholic runs through gin. He left behind 2,500 rolls of film undeveloped, 6,500 rolls developed but not edited or printed and about 300 contact sheets unedited.

The pictures he did print are often enigmatic: You can’t always tell why he took a particular picture, at least until you look long and hard, and look through an entire box of them. Then, Winogrand’s odd world view takes hold and his pictures become addictive. It is a Winogrand world.

Someone once said, “The world is not only stranger than you imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine.”

This is the truth Winogrand captures in his pictures. winogrand elephant 2

winogrand monkey in carIn many cases the photographs he left are jokes we can enjoy. An elephant’s trunk stretches across the frame to catch some peanuts dropped from a hand. No elephant in the picture; no person. Just hand and trunk.

A middle-age couple sit in a convertible on Park Avenue in Manhattan; an angry monkey perches on the seat back. What does such a thing mean?

A bagpiper in full Scots drag plays a bagpipe in a men’s room in front of a rank of urinals.

Few of the pictures have titles, and for those that do, the titles tell us very little: Park Avenue, New York, for instance, for the scowling monkey, or Apollo 11 Moonshot, Cape Kennedy, Florida. That picture shows a crowd of people from the back watching — and photographing — a rocket launch, while one small woman in the foreground looks in the opposite direction and makes a picture — we can never know of what — with her Kodak Instamatic. winogrand cape canaveral

But more often than not, the punch line is equivocal; more often it looks as if there must be a joke we do not get. It is on this edge of comprehension, subtle and uncomfortable, that Winogrand’s most important photography creates its meaning. For pictures with punch lines, Elliott Erwitt is much more consistently funny. But Winogrand tells us something deeper and more disquieting. winogrand richardson 1977

Most of us live in a world where things proceed largely as we expect them to. We hardly notice the anomalies. Winogrand was never so acculturated that he had conventional expectations; it freed him up to see what was really in front of him. Nixon Attorney General Elliot Richardson in a press conference alone and isolated — small — at a folding table and surrounded by tape recorders. A man and a woman — their backs to us — stare at a gorilla in a zoo; the gorilla stares back. winogrand phonebooth pair

Other photographers made consciously surreal pictures — Les Krims, for instance, who taped dozens of photos to his mother’s nude body, or Duane Michals, who used camera trickery to show a soul departing through an apartment window.

But Winogrand isn’t surreal. His world is the everyday one in front of us all the time, but which we do not see. Nothing is more bizarre than the ordinary. winogrand underwater pair

But it isn’t just the world by itself. As Winogrand insists, it is the world wrung through a camera lens. The act of making a picture changes the world.

He often said he made pictures to find out what the world looked like in photographs. And there is an awareness in Winogrand’s work that photographs rewrite reality. He makes us question our belief in the supposed truthfulness of photographs. winogrand nyc 1970

Winogrand knew that the four edges of a picture frame are a cookie cutter that slices out a bit of reality’s dough and separates it from its context and remakes the facts. No doubt there were a bevy of reporters listening to Richardson’s comments, but because they don’t appear inside the image frame, they cease to exist. This is what Winogrand means when he talks about seeing how something looks in a picture. It is changed. Utterly and inutterably. winogrand 1991 1

Winogrand was aware that a photograph has a grammar and syntax that we have learned to read. He makes us distrust that syntax.

He also plays God, making order out of chaos. Or at least, being aware that human perception will force meaning from chaos, he creates an artificial meaning from something that has none. In doing so, he forces us to consider the very existence and nature of meaning itself. Perhaps meaning is just a pattern we have gotten used to, a habit. Perhaps all it takes to create new meaning is a new pattern. Winogrand 1984 2

It is the artistic equivalent of naming constellations in the night sky. In that sky is a confused mass of stars, but we have grouped some together and named their configuration. The Big Dipper does not exist of itself, but only in that we have invented it. Orion, Scorpio, Gemini: The boundaries of any of these constellations could be redrawn and renamed. Put together the tail of the Big Dipper with the stars Spica and Arcturus and call it ”The Great Sky Scythe.”

Winogrand realized that we create such patterns; they are not inherent in reality. Winogrand understood that perception creates reality, or at least that we have no way of knowing reality except as it is ordered by our perception. winogrand nyc

He will find four or five people walking down the street, or gathered at a party, and use the edge of his picture as that cookie cutter. He makes us see those people as a coherent group, just as we see the Big Dipper. A part of us knows we have been manipulated, but the instinctive part of us accepts the fiction. Photographs confer validity even to lies.

Yes, Winogrand presents a picture of America over the past 30 years; yes, the photographs often have a visual punch line; yes, they show sometimes grotesque people. But above all, they experiment with what the mere fact of pressing the shutter button does to reality. winogrand 1984 4

They don’t all work: That would be too much to ask of such a prolific seer. But even the boring photos play with what the camera does. An ordinary person standing with a drink in his hand at a party, someone else stands behind him. We are forced to stare at the photo until we satisfy ourselves that we understand why he took that photo.

At times no reason ever emerges. But the event, framed in the viewfinder, probably a meaningless juxtaposition of two partygoers, is forced to seem as if it were meaningful. The simple fact of its being taken creates that fiction.

The bottom line becomes not whether the picture has any meaning, but our understanding that we automatically assume it must. We see ourselves seeing. We become aware of the picture’s frame as an event in itself. winogrand street women pair

He was a peculiar man, neurotic and obsessive. His thousands of photographs of women, for instance. He took pictures over and over of women on the streets. He seems to have been sexually obsessed with them, but only as seen. They drown us in their banality, but Winogrand saw something different. Photography has made them worth ogling; it has made them into cover models, no matter how dreary the reality.

“Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her,” he said. “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”winogrnd nyc 1982

Of course, everyone and his student is now playing with the ”medium as message.” But what is different with Winogrand — aside from the fact that he was doing it 30 years before the crowd — is that most of the facile youngsters doing so now almost seem to have no conscience about it. The tricks of the media hustler are used as if they were of themselves profound. winogrand nyc 1969

But Winogrand’s investigations are less glib, less pat. He is an intellectual intuiting a Postmodern truth. And there is an implied criticism of this packaged meaning. Winogrand is intuiting how images convey meaning and how they do so without any linear, verbal sense.

Others have used what he found, made theories about it. They turn what Winogrand found into sales pitches for Coke and Big Macs. But Winogrand was a discoverer, someone delighted and sometimes horrified by what he found.

kenneth clark

Without the cosmos, there would have been no civilization.

But, without Civilisation, there would have been no Cosmos.

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

And probably no Civil War or Jazz. And no jobs for all those BBC presenters, from Bettany Hughes to Michael Wood.

And Michael Palin would have been merely another retired Python.

Sir Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC television series is the granddaddy of all BBC and PBS high-culture series, where an engaging personality teaches us history or art from a personal point of view. For anyone who remembers seeing Civilisation when it was first broadcast in the United States in 1970, seeing it again, now on DVD, will be a revelation.

First of all, the film quality is excellent. Unlike other old series, presented in grainy, contrasty aged versions, Civilisation looks mahvelous, just as crisp and bright as when it was first broadcast. civilisation dvd cover

The series was initially filmed in color, and on 35mm stock, making it visually stunning. The BBC has remastered the original films onto HD and they are now available on Blu-Ray, at least in Europe. (One hopes that an American Blu-Ray version is soon in the offing).

Second, it is a much better, more nuanced view of its subject than you probably remember. If you recall it as Clark, with the British public-school back-palate drawl, talking about the “great masterpieces” as if he were an Oxfordian tour bus guide, you will be in for a surprise: His view is much more subtle than that.

Certainly, since the series was made, the general view of art and history has broadened, and the view of Western civilization as the be-all and end-all of human existence has been tossed out on the rubbish heap of ideas. Deconstructionists have shown us how our aggrandization of certain fetish items of cultural history has merely served to legitimize a particular ruling elite.

Yeah, yeah, yeah — we know that. But Clark’s view isn’t so simple. It is true that he exemplifies an old-fashioned “great man” view of history, and for that we have to listen to him with a grain or two of sodium chloride, but he is not merely the smug purveyor of status quo. He makes a serious attempt to discover just what civilization might be, and uses the past 500 years of European history to make his discovery.

“Writers and politicians may come out with all sorts of edifying sentiments,” he says in the series, “but they are what is known as declarations of intent. If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.”

And look at the buildings, we do. That is a third surprise in the series: Clark’s willingness to shut up for long periods of time while the camera shows us the art, the building or the landscape, so we may discover it for ourselves and not just take Clark’s word for it. He is more interested in sharing something with us than pounding us with his point of view.

We could do worse than consider his point of view, for it isn’t just about justifying power, but about seeing the results of how we view ourselves and our culture.

Civilization, Clark says, is energetic above all, always making something new. It is aware of the past and supremely confident and willing to plan for a future that will extend beyond our lifetimes, and therefore has a belief in permanence. It also has a firm belief in self-doubt. It fosters compassion and is willing to consider other points of view.

It is this last that the current wave of deconstructionists has failed to notice: Deconstruction itself depends on one of the supreme ideals of Western culture.

Charlemagne reliquary

Charlemagne reliquary

The full title of the series, with its British spelling, is Civilisation: A Personal View, and we should never forget — and Clark never forgets — that it is a single take on the subject. It is an opening statement in a conversation, not a final word to close off discussion.

And carping critics who complain that Western civilization — and post-Classical civilization at that — is hardly the be-all and end-all of civilizations in the world — well, Clark admits he has enough on his plate to cover Charlemagne to Monet. We wait for his counterpart to give us a similar personal overview of China, India, Africa or the New World. Clark has given us the template. Have at it.

The BBC took a chance when it made its first full-color TV series. It ultimately proved so popular that it was followed by Jacob Bronowsky’s The Ascent of Man and a host of others, from James Burke’s Connections to Ken Burns’ Civil War. It has proved a durable genre, but this release shows the first of its type remains one of the best of its type.

Pawnee Buttes 6

Space and time.

As you stand in the grassy expanse of the Great Plains, you are forced to confront them, Einstein’s two-faced god, the Janus of existence.

Time and space.

You stand at the stony edge of a low bluff and look out at a sea of grass and the cloud shadows racing over the buttes in Colorado’s Pawnee National Grassland, wetting them and drying them with shade and sun.

You feel yourself alone in the circle of the horizon — dead center in the universe of your own perception — and know, in a way you never do in the city, that you are alive on a planet. Pawnee road to horizon

Pawnee National Grassland is about 90 miles northeast of Denver. Within a 30- by 60-mile area just south of the Colorado-Wyoming state line, the Pawnee National Grassland encompasses old short-grass prairie and reclaimed farmland. The area is crossed mainly by unpaved roads, and the birds peel off from the side of the road as you drive by like the wake of a motorboat.

Sunflowers yellow the barbed wire on the shoulders of the roadway. Hordes of sunflowers, bobbing in the wind that is always exhaling. Pawnee sunflowers

It is easiest to get to the National Grassland from Denver. Usually, when we think of Denver, we think of the Rocky Mountains that loom above the city, but that is only if you face west. If you face east, Denver is the gateway to the Great Plains — the vast fifth of the United States that houses less than 3 percent of its people. Pawnee phone pole

A deeper beauty

The mountains are beautiful, but in a conventional way: Everyone can recognize their looks. But the Great Plains have a deeper beauty, and only those who spend time in this space can be gifted with seeing it.

As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest and make North America’s characteristic landscape. Even the prairie’s simplest statistics are sublime.” Pawnee fencepost

This region of northeastern Colorado was the subject of James Michener’s 1974 book, Centennial, and the history of the place was fictionalized in his tale.

But the real story is hardly less compelling. The prehistoric seas gave up the sea bottoms to become the middle of the continent. Dinosaurs, and later the great Cenozoic beasts, inhabited the area. Then there were Indians and buffaloes. Pronghorn, the fastest land animals in the western hemisphere

Finally, the buffalo hunter, the railroad, the cattle industry, the dry farmer, the droughts, the financial busts, the Dust Bowl, the emigrations and the land remaining like the butt end of a used cigarette.

You can feel all that history in the grass under your boot sole. windmill and sun vertical

By the mid-1930s, this portion of Weld County dropped to a tenth of its pre-Dust Bowl population.

That’s when the federal government and its Work Projects Administration tried to stabilize the economy, and the government began buying up plots of land. In 1938, responsibility for administering the land fell to the Soil Conservation Service.

In 1960, the Pawnee National Grassland was created. It is divided into two sections, each roughly square, just north of Colorado 14.

‘Rattlesnake Buttes’

The town of Briggsdale sits to the south of the road in the western sector. The towns of Buckingham and Raymer do the same in the eastern sector. They hardly qualify as towns: more like a collection of farm buildings, a few houses and maybe a grange hall.

The western sector contains the only campground, the Crow Valley Recreation Area, which sits in a depression of cottonwoods along Crow Creek. Crow Valley campgroungs

The eastern sector features the Pawnee Buttes, two erosional remnants that Michener calls “Rattlesnake Buttes” in Centennial.

“They were extraordinary, these two sentinels of the plains. Visible for miles in each direction, they guarded a bleak and silent empire,” he wrote. Pawnee Buttes 1

They tower about 350 feet over the plains at an altitude of 5,375 feet.

Getting to them requires a commitment. You have to drive on dirt roads about 15 miles, switching roads several times. It would be easy to get lost without a map. Get a map — available at a ranger station near Briggsdale.

You will pass Keota, a Dust Bowl ghost town, on the way. In its heyday, just after World War I, there were 140 people living there. Now, there are a few holdouts in the few remaining buildings. grasslands oil rig

Oil was found in the area in 1924, but that didn’t save the town. Even now, there are some oil pumps in the grasslands.

Between cattle grazing and mineral rights, the grasslands more than pay for themselves: 25 percent of oil and gas revenues are returned to Weld County for roads and schools. A similar percentage comes from grazing rights.

Wildlife treasured

But mostly the treasure to be found is in the wildlife: 301 species of birds; 400 species of plants. There are deer and pronghorns, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes.

The grasslands are not for the tourist, but for the traveler. There are no attractions in the flatness except the flatness itself. Lark Bunting

But for those who feel the atavistic call of the savanna, the veldt, the steppes, the pampas, this reminder of the tawny places in Africa that humankind came from, the grasslands speak volumes.

Grasslands, which cover 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, are home to almost 1 billion people.

Too often overlooked by tourists, who just want to get through the expanse as quickly as possible, the grassy middle of the country is, instead, what they should be looking for. Pawnee Buttes 5

Here you stand in a field of grasses that billow in the wind, with the same horizon you gaze at sea, and the same sky, and you recognize, more than in other landscapes, that each point in the endlessness is its very center.

It is the source of our national identity. It is the West we think of as our coming of age. It is the cradle of our greatest authors, the heart of our economy: the “amber waves of grain” and the “fruited plain.” Sunflower 2

And a sense of the bigness of the planet.

Time and space.

lascaux horse and sign

Seventeen-thousand years ago, a group of people very much like us descended into a cave in Magdalenian Europe and began painting animals on the walls. We can hardly know what drove them, although we enjoy pondering their motives.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Caves, like the one at Lascaux, had been decorated at least since 30,000 years ago — as at Chauvet caves to the east of Lascaux — but it is Lascaux that has most captured the world’s imagination. Tourists came by the thousands to walk through the galleries and be awestruck. That is, until their very enthusiasm began to endanger the drawings. Now, tourists come to see the replica of the caves at an attraction called Lascaux II.

My wife and I had been to France many times. We had visited most of the great cathedrals of northern Europe, from Amiens to Rheims, and had made pilgrimages to sites like Mont St. Michel and the Impressionist Eden where Claude Monet painted at Giverny. We had gained a profound education in the long line of history and culture that informs who we are today.

Carole likes to look into the old family photographs to see the physiognomic evidence of her genes, dating back to her great-grandfather, Rowan, who fought (on the losing side) in the American Civil War. She searches old genealogical records to carry that family history back further into time, at least back to the 18th century. For her, as an artist, looking at the bulls and horses of Lascaux is very like seeing the ultimate and oldest family photographs.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This is where our histories began, or at least, where they were first recorded, in the cave paintings along the Vezere valley from Montignac to Les Eyzies.

And, although Lascaux II is a reproduction, and not the original, it can carry the same potency that a reproduced family photograph can have. It is the pith of the image that carries the wallop and not its provenance. Seeing the imitation still gives us something that images in a book cannot convey: the size, the architecture, the surface. And it gives us a fighting chance to imagine ourselves in the caves before the development of writing, governments or digital watches. We can feel in our hearts the atavistic rumblings. That this is an act of imagination rather than a literal case is not only not a detriment, it is a positive improvement: Imagination is the source of everything here and that has come after. We would hardly be human without it.

We found the billeterie and bought our tickets for Lascaux II and were told there was an English language tour at 11:30 a.m. Lascaux II is about a kilometer out of town, up a narrow road and a narrower driveway, with lots of cinder parking lots at the top.

We waited where we were told to wait, and about 20 others joined us until a young man with balding hair and a flashlight came out and welcomed us in English with a characteristic French accent.

We walked down a flight of stairs into an underground chamber that had a dozen or so museum-style exhibits describing how the cave was discovered, how it was formed geologically, and how visitorship had damaged the original caves, and so a new reproduction was created for visitors, out of concrete, measured, millimeter by millimeter from the original. Two of the largest galleries were recreated in Lascaux II, including about 80 percent of the best animal drawings in the cave.lascaux ii

He led us into a darkened cavern the size of an auditorium and on both walls we saw animals, beautiful animals drawn, some smaller than lifesize, some, like the great 18-foot-long taurus, larger than life.

The bottom of the cave was “wainscotted” with clay, and no drawings were made on the clay.

“You cannot paint on clay,” our guide said.aurochs and horses lascaux1947

But on the limestone above were a ring of horses overdrawn with a larger ring of bulls, as if a horse cult had made an altar for equines, and maybe centuries, or millennia later, a bull cult came in and made their altar for their bulls. The bulls were all bigger than the horses, and tended to be in outline form, while the horses tended to be filled in with color. (This was not universally true, but is the tendency.)

There was also a figure the guide called a “unicorn” at the very entrance of the cave, although why it was called a unicorn, I don’t know, since it clearly had two horns blazing out of what seemed like a lion’s head.lascaux unicorn

Carole immediately spotted it as a shaman wearing an animal hide and carrying two sticks, like the African deer dancers we have seen pictures of.

“The first figure, as we entered the bull room, was not the most impressive — the big bulls were — but the first figure is something you work your way back to after recognizing what the other figures are,” she said.

“The first figure is mysterious and it isn’t drawn with the same confidence as the bulls and horses. There are not the same strong completely informed curves. The first figure looks like a man with black legs whose back and head might be covered with a lion skin. In place of his head is a lion’s head, with what looks like two long, straight horns protruding from the temples. I think those two prongs were not horns, but were sticks the man was carrying. It looked like the sides of an animal skin were hanging down on both sides from the man’s torso, if he was a man.

“Our guide showed us what he called a ‘hump of fat’ on the man’s back, like the hump of a bull, or maybe a grizzly, but I thought it was the lion’s mane. It wouldn’t have been practical to make something there like a lump of fat, if the man were wearing a costume.

Because the man was right there, and drawn smaller than most of the other figures, he did not seem to represent his own importance; he seemed to be driving the animals. His placement puzzles me. I don’t know what these paintings were for, but I do know what they are, and I think that is joy.”

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Perhaps he was driving the animals in the cave in a kind of cattle drive.

The animals, especially the horses, tended to be drawn in series, and at least one series — “like a musical phrase,” Carole says — shows them advancing from a standing horse, through a walking horse to running horses.Lascaux II bull and horse

The horses were finely seen, with astonishing attention to anatomical detail, allowing for a certain amount of distortion, like the distended bellies on several of the horses, and legs rather shorter than their bodies would have had. Still, the attention to joints, hocks and fetlocks was surprising.

The bulls, much larger and drawn above and overlapping the horses, were often just heads and shoulders. Some had the curved backs and bellies and jaunty forelimbs racing out front. But although they also showed keen attention to anatomy, they clearly were meant to impress with size and energy.megaloceros room

The second room we entered was called the Axial Gallery and contained many more wonderful drawings, including a group on the ceiling, leading some to call it the “Sistine Chapel of prehistory.”black bull 2

You can see why they might say so, for the animals, all drawn with care for detail and expression, were everywhere.

“Our guide gave a running commentary and explanation of what we were looking at, but I tried not to hear him and tried to pretend that I had accidentally found it, so I could feel it only visually,” Carole said.

“I had a great feeling of joy and definitely a feeling of inspiration and gratitude. It felt just like a cathedral and I think I said out loud, ‘It is a cathedral, Richard.’

“I thought the most beautiful drawings and paintings were the bulls. They had wonderful curved horns, like Picasso’s bulls, but their heads were more prominent and really beautiful. Beautifully shaped and beautifully drawn. On at least one bull’s face, the detail of the nostril and the mouth were indicated by negative space against a black muzzle.

“If I had been alone, and obeying my instincts, I think I would have skipped and danced and clapped my hands, in a circle, round and round and round in the round room, just happy because of the bright contrast and the strength of the animals, and the joyous beauty of them running together, overlapped and contained within.lascaux II panorama 2

“There were little runs of horses like musical phrases.

“After seeing all these paintings and drawings, bulls, horses, reindeer, it becomes hard to believe they could have been anything but religious objects, icons or totems for clan worship.”

Despite being so realistic in so many ways, they are also somewhat stereotyped: the same horse shape from the same side angle. The same bull head over and over.

But there was one exception: At the end of the chamber, in a darkened corner where the passageway was bifurcated and narrowed, there was what looked at first like an upside down horse.falling horse

“Perhaps they thought it was Australian,” joked our guide.

“Or perhaps it had been killed and was dead,” he said.

But a dead horse is not upside down like a cockroach, but flat on its side.

No, this horse seemed to be dust-bathing, rolling back and forth on its back, almost playing. Alone of all the paintings we had seen in the Lascaux II galleries, it seemed to be an artistic rendering of something the artist had seen in the real world and was drawn not because of its totemic meaning, but simply for the pleasure of rendering experience, of seeing the world.

Lascaux II was a decidedly more satisfying experience than the Font-de-Gaume paintings: The animals were better drawn and they could be seen with a clarity missing in the other cave. There was a joy to the energy of the animals racing and jumping; you could hardly fail to be exhilarated by them.Big Bull Lascaux II

And seeing them in situ — even in a reproduced situ — gave you a much deeper understanding of them compared merely to seeing the photos in a book. Some of them are giant, like the 18-foot bull, a scale you can’t reproduce in a halftone.

They are some of the most astonishing drawings I’ve ever seen, even if they are 17,000 years old.

For Carole, as always, they hit with a more personal note.

“Maybe one reason I love these paintings and this experience so much is that I’ve made this paint myself, many times, beginning when I was about six or seven years old, in my back yard. There was plenty of iron oxide red dirt, plenty of yellow ocher clay and always charcoal from the place where we used to build a fire and roast oysters.

Notice the overlapped hindquarters

Notice the overlapped hindquarters

“I regularly made mud pies out of the red dirt and yellow clay and set them out on the back steps to dry for my playhouse bakery. The stain that the red mudpies left on the steps would not come off, no matter how much I washed it. So when Daddy had the men in his plumbing shop paint the back of our house white, I couldn’t wait for the white paint to dry; I pestered my parents about when the paint was going to be dry and unfortunately, they didn’t think to ask me why I was so interested. As soon as it was dry, I mixed up a bucket of red dirt and water and got a window sash brush. I used the step ladder and painted everything I knew how to draw all across the back of the house, as large as I could and I signed it with my name.

“I asked Mother and Daddy to come out and take a look at the wonderful thing I’d done. Daddy was not pleased and I was sent back up the stepladder with the same bucket and soapy water, but it never came off. Eventually, we painted the back of the house white again, but some of the red still bled through.

“And all I really learned from this was that that red dirt must be one of the most powerful things in the world. It made me love it more.

“I’ve written a lot of poems about that red dirt. When I went barefoot, it used to stain my feet. The red water it made in the bottom of the bathtub was beautiful, running toward the drain.

“Then, when I was in my 30s, I had a house that had a fireplace and I always had pieces of charred wood. From the time I was little, I would try to draw with pieces of charred wood, because I thought Abraham Lincoln did his homework with such a thing. On this day, I used charred wood on paper to make a large drawing of the sun’s face. I drew the outline and the features with black and I made yellow ocher paint and red iron oxide paint from the dirt in my yard in Greensboro. I hung it on the wall above the fireplace, where it hung for six years. I called it ‘Abraxas, the god of change.’Lascaux II bull paintings

“I still love the range of contrast that you get from this velvety black, strong iron red and buttery yellow ocher. There were cows the color of yellow ocher that used to sleep in the grass on the river road past our house. When the grass in those fields turned lion colored, the cows were camouflaged. In the summertime, thousands of orange day lilies filled the same pastures.

“So, actually, when I was in the cave, I experienced the pictures in my body, with my hands and memory of mixing those paints myself, and feeling like a hero making pictures with the paint.”lascaux panorama

les eyzies bison carving

Open a bottle of champagne and leave it out, and by morning it is flat and stale.

Opening up a prehistoric cave can be like that. Lascaux caves in France, with its menagerie of animal paintings, lasted for nearly 20,000 years intact. It was discovered (or more properly, rediscovered) in 1940 and after the war, was opened to tourists. It was soon apparent that the cave was beginning to be degraded. Lichens were starting to grow on the walls, and the huge jump in carbon dioxide levels, from the breath of all those making the pilgrimage through the caves, was joining with the calcium in the limestone to form a layer of calcite that would soon cover and blur all the imagery.

It was that, like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the act of observation changed what was being observed. When you open up the box with Schrodinger’s cat inside, sometimes what you find is not quote so pleasant.

The caves were closed to the public. In 1983, a simulation — a copy of the original caves — was opened as Lascaux II, and tourism heated up again. Tour guides led groups through the ersatz caverns and let us see a simulacrum of the original experience. They assure us over and over that the copy is precise down to the millimeter.

Lascaux II

Lascaux II


I’m a naturally suspicious person. When a shopkeeper is friendly, I allow she may indeed be very nice, but I recognize she also has a self-interest in making customers feel good.

And when I see the great cathedrals of northern France, I question whether I’m getting the vision of the master builder and his sculptors, or am getting the Viollet le Duc version and a 19th century stylization of the Gothic art and architecture. They rarely let you know what parts of a church are original and what parts have been restored. Sometimes it is easy to tell, but much of the time, it is not.

Whether it is Sir Arthur Evans at the Palace of Knossos, or reconstructed pyramids at Chichen Itza or the Carnac alignments, the work, even of dedicated and honest archeologists, is suspect.

Entrance to Lascaux II

Entrance to Lascaux II

And when we visit Lascaux II in Montignac, Perigord, France, I am suspicious of the recreation of the original paintings by a 20th century artist, no matter how well meaning.

I’m not saying I don’t believe what I see is accurate, but that I harbor a constant suspicion that it may not be.

The problem is that the reproduced paintings are so much clearer and more contrasty than the genuine paintings we saw at Font-de-Gaume.

When I asked the tour guide about it, his answer was not satisfactory, and somewhat off point.

“These paintings were drawn from accurate photographs of the originals,” he said. “And they don’t vary as much as a millimeter from the real ones.”lascaux II panorama 2

But it isn’t the size that I was questioning, but that the photographs taken of the real cave may very likely have had their contrast boosted to make the images more legible, and I wondered if the artist who created the facsimile might have unconsciously reproduced jiggered-up photos.

Did he visit the original cave under the same lighting conditions he painted in, and did he compare his results, not with the photograph, but with the real paintings? This is not an academic question.

Our own biases secretly creep in whenever we look at the past. It cannot be otherwise. Even the most scrupulous “reproduction” is an interpretation.

It isn’t the honesty of the reproductions that I worry about. But I remember how easily fooled art experts were by Han van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers, and how shocked I was when I first saw them, with the gift of several decades between them and me, that anyone could ever have been fooled by them. Or even the Minuet by Paderewski, that he pawned off as a long-lost dance by Mozart. In the 19th century, it sounded genuinely like Mozart to their ears, but our ears can not be fooled: It is pure Victorian kitsch.

Abbe Breuil

Abbe Breuil

Often, in books, the images we see of cave paintings are not photographs of the original, but reproductions of drawings made of them. Abbe Henri Breuil, for instance, made many of them. He was one of the first and most influential archeologists to study the many cave paintings in France and northern Spain. But his drawings often make the originals clearer and of higher contrast. And we cannot always know if he has given us a perfect copy, or a modern interpretation.altamira bison pair

Consider his famous drawing of a bison from the caves at Altamira in Spain. He has added the horns and has made clear what is obscure — or has made guesses at what its original makers would have wanted us to understand.

He made a famous drawing of a supposed “sorcerer” from Caves of Trois-Frères, but a simple comparison of the drawing with a photo of the original makes one skeptical of all such attempts to reproduce the cave paintings.sorcerer pair

It is our own time and culture that colors what we pick from the welter of confused sense data that we see before us. We need to make sense of it, and invariably make a kind of sense that works in the confines of the culture we have been born into.

The air we breathe is invisible to us, the culture we absorb is odorless and tasteless. Only later can the habits and prejudices of one age be clearly spotted by its successor.

(It is easier these days to spot the cultural accretions from the Romantic 19th century, less easy to spot our own. One scratches one’s head at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, comparing when on one hand, he declares “alle menschen werden bruder” — all men will be brothers — with the “Hogan’s Heroes” march where the tenor tells us that joy is like the hero after victorious battle. Who has he battled, if all men are brothers? Clearly, the Romantics had a different, and mythic vision of war than we can ever sustain after the Somme, the bombing of Dresden or slaughter at Stalingrad. Beethoven and Schiller were certainly blind to this irony. We can never be.)

It isn’t that I think we should be allowed to visit the original Lascaux: It is clear that visitation destroys them, and I’m all for preserving them.

But I asked if scholars are allowed to visit the original and the guide said, “No. Not even scholars are allowed in. There is a keeper of the cave and he ventures in on a strict schedule to monitor the air, the humidity and the temperature, but no one else may enter.”

So, I wonder if all the latest scholarship is based on inaccurate reproductions.

Because at Font-de-Gaume, the paintings, while beautifully drawn, were noticeably low contrast, often barely legible on the walls. You had, in many cases, to acclimate your eyes to make out the bull or his eye or his horns.

In some cases, animals we were shown may be more like the fanciful shapes people make out of stalactites and stalagmites in tourist caves — “Here is the ‘ham and eggs,’” or “Can you see the elephant here?”

Our Lascaux guide assured us that the originals at Lascaux look “just like the reproductions, and are very clear,” and I have to say they look bright and legible in the photographs in the books.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

In vintage photographs, the paintings look clear and contrasty.

“Font-de-Gaume was made something like 4000 years after the Lascaux paintings,” he said. “They were not the same culture.”

And he implied that the Font-de-Gaume artists were inferior and less able to articulate their animals and less able to make their contrast ring out.

So, when our guide tells us the Lascaux facsimiles are accurate, I am inclined to believe him, and when Carole tells me that the shopkeeper was really nice and loved talking with her, I tend to believe Carole knows it is so. Yet, I also remember that the shopkeeper does a better business by being friendly.

NEXT: Visiting Lascaux II 

font de gaume drawing

On every continent, save Antarctica, early humans have left their mark on rock faces. Whether Australia or southern Africa or Asia, there is rock art left behind. The most famous and most familiar, of course, are the cave paintings of Europe. Dating from 30,000 years ago to roughly 10,000 years ago, they are the starting point from which we begin every survey course in art history.

The most famous caves are Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France, but there are hundreds of others, including the recently famous Chauvet cave in southern France.

I have taught some of those survey courses, but I had never seen any of the actual caves: I had only seen reproductions in my Janson or Gombrich. Several visits now to Europe have given my wife and me the chance to see some of the cultural monuments we had only dreamed of seeing: Chartres, Giverny, the Louvre — and the cave paintings.

You come to think of yourself as an adult, and that you have seen pretty much everything — in general if not in particular — and you develop a skin of insouciance. It is children whose eyes widen, not adults. We measure and compare, we add some small dram of new experience to the old and hold all in emotional proportion.

That ceases to be possible when staring at the bison, aurochs and horses scratched, drawn and painted in the inner recesses of inaccessible caverns, with a palpable lacuna of 20,000 to 30,000 years in between ourselves and the clearly living and breathing — and thinking and feeling — people who left this evidence on the limestone walls.

Bison, Font-de-Gaume

Bison, Font-de-Gaume

And we fall in awe that those people we depict as “primitive” cave dwellers could be so artistically advanced, so visually sophisticated. Yet, there is also a kind of glass wall between us and them. We have no idea why they painted and scratched these images; we have no idea what the images meant to them. We are left to guess.

Those guesses fall into two large categories: On one hand, a group of modern people assume the prehistoric people were decidedly primitive, unlike us in so many ways beyond merely not having smart phones; on the other hand, there are those who make the empathetic leap and recognize that the Cro-Magnon human is exactly the same species as we are, with exactly the same brain power, same potential for neuroses, same skills, and that if we had been in their position, we would perform exactly as they did, and so perhaps the cave paintings are not something alien and other, perhaps they can be understood, not as Alley Oop, the cave man, but as mon frere, ma soeur.

The first art we saw is 17,000 years old, on a cave wall in the Vezere river valley of the Perigord region of France. There were bison, reindeer and horses, drawn with an anatomical awareness that European artists didn’t seem to recapture until the Renaissance.

We had planned first to go to Lascaux in Montignac, but the roads are not always well marked in France and we wound up instead in Les Eyzies at the other end of the Vezere valley.

And it all came to us by accident.

The plan was to drive from Angouleme to Montignac to see the Lascaux II reproductions of the cave art of the original, now closed Lascaux caves.

The road wound through green valleys, up over wooded hillsides and over streams. Eventually, we got to Les Eyzies without ever seeing Montignac.

Les Eyzies de Tayac

Les Eyzies de Tayac

Turns out, that was a good thing.

Les Eyzies is a small village, made up mostly of cafes and souvenir shops, all along a single street below a tall yellow limestone cliff. These bluffs line the river valley. In them are dozens of caves, and many of those have prehistoric art in them.

Lascaux, further north just outside Montignac, is, of course, much more famous. But the cave has been closed for decades; a substitute cave, called Lascaux II is open to tourists, featuring recreations of the original art. It had been our intention to visit that cave first, and then perhaps check out some of the other, lesser sites along the river valley.

But because we came the wrong way, we found the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, which is one of the only remaining caves with polychrome painting still open to the public. They protect the cave as well as they can by only allowing 12 people in at a time, and fewer than 200 a day. You have to make an appointment.font de gaume entrance

So, we stopped by the office — a shack with books and souvenirs for sale — and asked if it might be possible to get a ticket for the next day.

“We are closed Saturday,” she said. “But we have tickets available for this afternoon at 3.”

It was about 12:30 at the time. So we bought our tickets and drove around the countryside, looking at the paysage and enjoying the many roadside attractions, like the Prehisto-Parc, which features those familiar papier mache Neanderthals bagging a concrete mammoth. We passed on going in.

We drove all the way to Montignac, just to see the scenery, and, boy were we even happier we had come the wrong way.

Many years ago, when Carole and I first visited Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation, we came to it the back way, along a dirt road from New Mexico. We didn’t know what we were looking for and got lost on the back roads through the forest. But eventually, the road started down the side of a cliff and we saw a large hole in the ground a couple of miles ahead. It was Canyon de Chelly, and the road led us up to it with no traffic, tourists or souvenir shops. We came upon it — actually upon Wild Cherry Canyon, a side canyon — and got out of the car and had the canyon to ourselves, looking 400 feet straight down into a rock hole. It was awesome. It was only later, getting to the head of the canyon, that we saw the traditional entryway, Chinle, a godawful tourist hole rank with traffic and jewelry stands. If we had come to Canyon de Chelly through the front entrance, we would have been put off by the wretched poverty of the Indians and the rancid commercialism of the dusty town.

Postcards for sale, Montignac

Postcards for sale, Montignac

So it was at Montignac, a fussy, busy, crummy town, catering to the worst of the tourist trade. If we had seen it first, we would have held our noses, visited Lascaux II and gotten the hell out of Dodge as fast as possible.

But coming up through Les Eyzies instead, we got a boat load of prehistoric places, smaller and less commercialized than Lascaux II, and we found a hotel a few miles north of town called the Hotel Peche-Lune, a large, new hotel with large, clean rooms and a great restaurant out front.

By then, we had used up our extra time and came back to Font-de-Gaume, in time to begin our tour.

It was an unannounced trek uphill for 500 meters, a grueling bit of alpine climbing for Carole and me, huffing and puffing, 20 yards behind the rest of the group, and losing ground.

Cave entrance, Font-de-Gaume

Cave entrance, Font-de-Gaume

At the top, there was a hole in the mountain and our guide took us 12 in to see the cave paintings. The cave is not the wide, high sort of Carlsbad Caverns sort of cave, but a seam in the limestone eroded out, about 120 meters into the hill, with several side cavities off at a good Karstian 90 degree angle. At its narrowest, the cave rubbed both shoulders, and there were a few places I had to duck my head, but mostly, it was wide enough for one or two people to pass, and in the main grotto, the ceiling was 100 feet up.

It is dark inside, with a faintly lighted footpath, and a few round lights on the wall that were switched on to dimly illuminate a three-foot bison on the wall about a foot above head height. No, there was another one a little on. And another. Actually there were five bison in the first section of the cave. The first was the clearest, hunch-shouldered, battering ram head, tiny legs and a wooly coat of brown. A small hole in the rock served as the beast’s eye.frieze of bison

The first impression is that the paintings are so faint as hardly to be visible at all. But as you get used to the low illumination in the cave, you realize that what is actually surprising is that they are still visible at all after 17,000 years. It is an astonishing passage of time: 15,000 years before Christ. 12,000 years before the Great Pyramid at Giza. That we could see them at all has to be a miracle.

We moved down the corridor of the cave to another spot, where we saw a giant reindeer, maybe 4 feet long, with a great hoop of antlers curved in a giant C from his head and forward. The shoulders and antlers were the clearest to see, the head, partly painted and partly incised in the stone, was more difficult to make out, but when you did, you saw the reindeer was licking another animal standing in front of it: another reindeer, facing the opposite way, darker and more obscure.

Comparing the "enhanced" reproduction with the actual drawing. More on this in Part 2

Comparing the “enhanced” reproduction with the actual drawing. More on this in Part 2

There were more bison and some horses, and what struck you, after realizing how faint some of the imagery was, was how beautifully they were drawn. It is the drawing, not the painting, that is the most notable.

The painting is really bichrome: There is black, mostly for outline, and there is a kind of white, faintly yellow, and there is the ocher mixture of the two, making the brown.

Why are these images here? Who made them? You cannot help but agonize over their meaning. Over the years, there have been many proposed explanations, but none of them really help.

Surely, you think, the paintings might have been the only part of some more elaborate installation that has otherwise long rotted away. We’ll never know.

Over dinner, Carole and I came up with a dozen stories.

I mentioned the football “Game Plan Theory,” with Xs and Os on the blackboard to teach the tactics of the game. Perhaps some ancient hunting teacher was showing the younger generation the ropes.

Or perhaps it was a school, says Carole. One bison, two bison, three bison, learning to count.

She also wondered if they might not have been painted not by adults, but by children, or a single child especially talented at art. And perhaps they are in the caves because that child kept them as his secret place, where he decorated his play fort walls with his drawings.

I said that we should not rule out the possibility that they were created not by men or boys, but by women. “It has to be possible,” I said. “Perhaps the cave was the place in which women were isolated for their menses. Many primitive societies do such things.”

“Then I would expect the animal paintings to be about mothers and calves, or animals giving birth,” she said.

The usual explanations about magic and shamans might be true, but I wondered if we don’t too often condescend to our ancient forebears.

“These were Cro-Magnons, which means they were modern humans in every anatomical aspect. They were exactly the same species as us, with exactly the same brainpower. The only difference between then and now is cultural: We have built on the culture we inherited, as our grandfathers built on the culture they inherited, from the pickax to the digital watch.

“Perhaps we should ask what would we have made these paintings for. Maybe the answer isn’t some tribal woo-woo, heebie-jeebies, but something as practical or as quotidian as our own lives.”

I wasn’t sure what that would be: Certainly these cave paintings were not made as art galleries. Seeing them is a pain in the ass, and there is no track lighting, to say nothing of the lack of white wine and cheese.

It used to be thought that the paintings were hunting magic, capturing the image of the animal to be hunted, to make it easier to capture the meat on the hoof. But recent studies of the caves make it clear that the animals in the paintings were not prey animals. The cavemen did not eat bison or lions or bears.font de gaume single bison

The second theory is that they were “animal masters,” that is, the animals of cult worship, and the painting of them was a magical means to capture their power, their emotional power.

My own best guess is that they might have been images for meditation, something to concentrate on to bring the observer into an altered state of consciousness. Certainly, many of the drawings — at least elsewhere in the world — contain odd hallucinogenic dots, crosses and spiral patterns, the same imagery that modern drug-religion ceremonies induce and that can be seen in Huichol paintings.

The thing is, we’ll never really know. Almost certainly, vital evidence has disappeared over time, rotted into oblivion: The paintings are denuded of their context and we have nothing to go on but the measly remains, not even so much evidence as dinosaur bones.

We discussed this all over a great dinner at our hotel: We began with a salade de perigourdaise, which was lettuce, foie gras on toast, and lots of duck innards skizzied up and hot. It was surprisingly delicious and very meaty. Carole picked at the lettuce, but couldn’t bring herself to eat duck parts she couldn’t recognize: gizzards, livers — for all we knew duck tongues and spleens.

The main courses were better accepted by a wider population of the Nilsen household. Carole had a faux filet — a beefsteak — bien cuit, thank you very much, and some sliced, fried potatoes. I had a magret de canard with the same potatoes. My duck was really great.

“Duck, the OTHER red meat,” I said.

I saw no ducks on the cave walls. Surely they enjoyed ducks as much as I do.