The discovery of 20,000-year-old cave art and the mysteries behind it see the light of day in a new exhibition at the Montreal Science Centre this spring and summer. The Cave of Lascaux – Prehistoric Masterpieces transports us way back to a pre-human era that proves itself far less crude than commonly thought.
In the exploratory spirit of the Montreal Science Centre, history, art and science intertwine in the international exhibition, introducing visitors to one of the most famous Palaeolithic cave art sites, its many art works, as well as to our surprisingly sophisticated Cro-Magnon ancestors responsible for the multi-hued paintings and engravings of animals, people and inexplicable symbols.
Set in the low, flickering firelight of how the cave had been lit 20,000 years ago, The Cave of Lascaux – Prehistoric Masterpieces takes us within the massive underground cave’s many rounded cavities, some 12-feet tall, others only big enough for a child to stand up in. Laser-mapped, to-scale plaster models of the caves show the extensive tunnels, all filled with detailed art work as if in the rooms of a gallery. A short digital video guides visitors through the cave’s spaces, making the space seem all the more real. And life-sized, scientifically-calculated and artistically-rendered replicas of the paintings bring prehistory into the present day.
In the years after the cave’s discovery in 1940 by a group of teenagers who fell upon a hole in the earth in rural France, thousands of people caused damage to the fragile paintings, simply due to the heat and humidity of so many bodies milling through the underground caverns. In 1963, prehistorians appealed to the French government for the Cave of Lascaux be closed for conservation – after all, the cave paintings represented one of the biggest and well-preserved caches of prehistoric art in the world. Since then, one of the only ways to see the ancient artifacts is in photos, video and technologically-advanced, pitch-perfect reproductions of the work – all of which are on display throughout the exhibition, alongside bone and stone tools, sewn clothing, and artist Elisabeth Daynès’s realistic wax sculptures of a Cro-Magnon family.
On public view for the first time, the exhibition’s five full-scale replicas of paintings from two sections of the cave have never even been reproduced before. Depicting bison moulting in the spring, a large Black Cow, animals in proto-animation (five drawings of the same animal in sequence) and more, the exact reproductions speak to the complexity of the original fresco artwork. Even after 70 years of analysis, researchers have concluded that the artworks hold a purpose, yet what that is remains mysterious. All we know is that our ancestors used art, language and tools in ways that mirror modern humanity far more than anyone believed before the discovery of the Cave of Lascaux.
The Cave of Lascaux – Prehistoric Masterpieces, April 17 to September 14, 2014
Photos courtesy of the Montreal Science Centre
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