Prehistoric Cave Monotypes

During 2011 and 2012 I made repeated visits to several of the prehistoric caves in the Dordogne, particularly Rouffignac, Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles. These are close to the famous Lascaux cave, which is no longer open because of its deterioration, but which has been studied to make a very accurate replica, Lascaux II. Most of the decorated caves are sensitive to changes in the atmosphere, so there are strict limits on the numbers of people allowed in each day and as touching the walls would cause damage, very few can go in together. Our visits have been out of season and we’ve been lucky to be able to return several times, so the guides have recognised us and allowed me to make very small drawings.

I made over 100 drawings, necessarily in the dark, trying to catch some of the experience of sharing these spaces with the prehistoric artists who often seem to have looked at their world much as we do ours. My rushed and often messy little drawings carry particular meaning for me, catching both some of what I saw and some of how it felt to be there. I made some solarplate prints directly from the drawings in May last year and then went on to make 65 monotypes using the drawings and memories from seven of the caves.

I started using some of the monotype methods that I had developed while making the goddess series, but soon found that new approaches and techniques were needed to carry these ideas. Some of the main monotypes are set out here – I made them and have kept them in groups from each cave as the caves have such different characteristics.

This first group are about Lascaux. It was easier to draw here because lots of people are allowed in at a time and there is a general very low light so I could see what I was doing. I worried that the experience there was not as ‘real’ because the cave is a reproduction rather than the original, but my own experience of it was, of course, authentic. It’s easier to visit than the other caves because you don’t have to worry about where you step, the floor is fairly level and dry. Once your eyes are used to the dark you begin to see your surroundings. I was transported into a world of magical, leaping animals; bright flashes of colour and eyes catching mine. Sharp hooves drummed down around my head and I was aware of fragments of images that each seemed to carry significance far beyond the fraction that I could see. I’ve tried to represent some of that experience in the monotypes and also to hold onto the sense of transformation that moving through the cave brings, the sense of being suspended in an unfamiliar world. The memory of this sensation is magnified by the shock of exit, the physical jolt of moving suddenly into dazzling light alongside a recognition that the world had changed, it was different from when I was last there. So I was also changed.


About vivmartin1

Viv is an artist and educator based on the south coast of England.
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