We do not know exactly when the first work of art was created by human hands and we will probably never for certain, as the very question is vexatiously hedged with other questions (such as, what constitutes art?), and that is before we factor in our uncertain knowledge of unconscionably remote periods, new discoveries that shatter accepted wisdom and most pertinently, all that will remain undiscovered as it has vanished from the face of the earth forever.
Georges Bataille who wrote extensively on the subject of prehistoric art for over three decades published Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art in 1955, a monograph on the famous Lascaux Caves, known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art, with paintings dating from around 17,000 BP. Bataille’s theory that Lascaux represented the birth of art would have been uncontroversial at the time, but new paintings have since come to light in Indonesia and France, especially the magnificent Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave that pushes back the birth of figurative art another 15,000 years.
One of the most remarkable features of prehistoric art (and there are many) is that it upends our idea of the constant evolutionary progress of humanity. Automatically we think that art created by sophisticated civilisations is going to be superior to art from pre-literate cultures and the further back you go the cruder the paintings. We presume that the art in Chauvet would only hint at the glories of Lascaux and Altamira, bearing the same relation to a child’s daubs to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet the excellence of composition and technical expertise, which includes prior etchings of the stone that is then painting over shows that these were artists were no mere initiators, they already possessed a full command of the medium.
There are many more mysteries surrounding cave art. Why were they painted in the recesses of the caves which would have created many difficulties in execution and viewing? Some of the paintings in Lascaux would by necessity have involved the construction of scaffolding. Why is the human figure so rarely represented and in such a crude and always masked fashion in comparison to the numerous and lovingly rendered animal figures? And most pointedly, why did our ancestors feel compelled to create images in the first place and did this compulsion somehow change our relationship to nature?
Below are images from Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and others caves from the Franco-Cantabrian region. Obviously a two-dimensional image can never do justice to art which was meant to been seen in situ, but as a majority of caves are either closed or severely restrict access for imperative preservation reasons this is simply not feasible. But even from a cursory glance we can see why Picasso exclaimed to his fellow modern artists, ‘We’ve invented nothing’ after a trip to Lascaux.