The wait will be over on December 15, 2016, with the opening of the new museum of the Lascaux caves in the Montignac region of Southern France.
The most famous site for Palaeolithic art in Europe for more than 17,000 years, its marvellous frescoes have remained sealed thanks to the well-timed collapses that preserved them at a constant temperature and humidity. Then, in 1940, four adolescents entered the cave for the first time after millennia and discovered a priceless treasure. The “Sistine Chapel of the Stone Age”. 600 depicted animals, painted with ochre, coal, and manganese dioxide, in dominating shades of dark brown and reddish brown. The Hall of the Bulls, the Spear of the Dead Man, the Chamber of the Felines, there are figures of every size, some up to five metres high.
When the caves opened to the public in the 1950’s, 1,200 visitors per day came to see them. It was an impossible number to sustain for this miracle of preservation. As a result, fungi and mould began to damage the paintings, and in 1963 the caves were closed to the public. Since then, except for a few scholars and restorers, no one has been able to admire this art from the last Ice Age.
Up till now.
The Norwegian architectural firm, Snøhetta, designed and built Lascaux IV, a copy, a replica that faithfully reproduces, centimetre by centimetre, the 900 m2 of the original caves. Everything was copied to perfection: the rock, the techniques, the materials. A stratagem used by artists of the time was also copied, taking advantage of protrusions and the roughness of the surface to give a three-dimensional effect to the figures.
The people who painted these caves, and all the other ones found in Western Europe, were not beginners, but true artists. They often painted in the areas furthest in, using artificial light; the techniques that were used included brushes, flint engravers, fur for blending, spraying to fill in, and fingers (so many that in some points it is possible to see their fingerprints); the subjects, which were almost always animals, were arranged in accordance with a precise order that gave the whole ensemble a meaning that has been lost to time.
It is a shame to have to be satisfied with a copy, but Lascaux is a treasure trove of material that is too precious to risk losing. The original is a gift for future generations. Because if it is true what Picasso said, that after Altamira, another famous Palaeolithic site in Northern Spain, everything else is decadence, then we have a duty to pass down the place in which humanity’s journey into art began. Before everything began to decay.
All photos, courtesy of Snøhetta / snohetta.com