Monday, January 23, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

You know how there's that dinner list thing, where people talk about who they'd invite for dinner, anyone from any time? Werner Herzog, the director of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, has been on that list of mine for a long, long time. I see every film he makes, documentary or fiction. I believe he's an archivist by nature, profoundly interested in excavating human truths and preserving them for the future. Perhaps that's why he felt such a deep urge - and sense of urgency - to film the paintings discovered in the Chauvet Cave in southern France.

In a way, the modern mind can't quite relate to the drawings in the cave. Grasping that you are looking at images created some 32,000 years ago is akin to knowing in real senses what one billion dollars is. In the end, it's theoretical.


Except for these horses...

We can look at all of the images (but for those that are concealed behind stalactite and stalagmite formations) from Chauvet Cave because they are widely available on the Internet. We can see drawings of human figures, bears, big cats, water buffalo, bison, and some animal species that vanished thousands of years ago. They are all interesting to look at, even as the mind searches for any kind of foothold to know what kind of people created them. Because to know they weren't people like us tells us nothing, really.

But in his film, Werner Herzog returns again and again to these horses. (I wish I knew how to make and link in a sound file of his voice as he says "the horses" in that wonderful round, slightly thick German tone of his.) I don't know what pulled him back to the horses, but I know I couldn't wait for the camera to return to them. Because these horses stand apart from the rest of the drawings. Maybe it's how they were drawn, the complexity of the group of them, the four different colors and sizes of them, the clarity with which they were depicted. It's as if the artist meant to paint them in exacting, painstaking detail, meant exactly to capture the what-they-are-ness of them. I think that intention is there. But what does that mean, what does that say about horses, I wondered to myself, watching the film. Herzog mentions in his running commentary that horses were hunted as food, among other things. Yes, but still, I can't help but feel that the human being who painted these four horses saw something more in them, understood something more. And oh, to know what that might have been.


Barbara said...

I listened to a wonderful interview on NPR about these caves. One point that Herzog comes back to over and over is that the artist of the horses took great pains to incorporate the surface structure of the cave walls into the bodies of the horses.
I agree, they may have been a source of food, but they were also something else. Something special.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Picasso commented about the Spanish cave paintings in Altamira - "After Altamira, all is decadence..."

The first (and last) time I looked at these breathtaking images was way back in art school. Thanks for the reminder. :)

Grey Horse Matters said...

I've seen these paintings and think they must somehow depict the artists love and admiration for beautiful animals. How interesting that so many years ago people realized how special these animals are. Great post, thanks for reminding us how many years our horses have been a part of our lives.