In 1994, the timeline of human art lengthened dramatically. In fact, it doubled when three explorers discovered a wealth of ancient paintings in a cave above the beautiful Ardeshe River in rural Southern France. Radiocarbon dating identified the horses, bison, lions, bears, and other images found on the limestone walls to be approximately 32,000 years old. To preserve the paintings, the cave has never been opened to the public and even access to scientists has been strictly limited. Luckily for us, veteran German film director Werner Herzog and his cinematic team were given a few hours in Chauvet Cave to film the wonderful art, resulting in the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Humanity's Lost Masterpiece.
Unlike many ancient figures, the animals painted in Chauvet Cave are not by any means simple or crude. The artists were keen observers of nature and very skilled at drawing. Their figures display an understanding of anatomy and evoke motion. The artists were even able to use the curves and hollows of the walls to enhance the vitality of their elaborate scenes. I find it fascinating that so much was done so cleverly by flickering firelight.
Herzog interviews many scientists inside and outside the cave. They tell us how the ancient mouth of the cave collapsed, how cave explorers located fissures evicting cave air, how the painters worked, and what is being done to preserve the art. Lovingly, the cinematographer dwells slowly on the images, letting us see the cave's most famous images again and again.
Herzog, Werner. Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Humanity's Lost Masterpiece. IFC Films, 2011. ISBN 9780788614156.