Font de Gaume is a cave that demands respect. The entrance is high on the cliff face and the steep path feels like a pilgrim route and stops in a cliff shelter where the small group of visitors are prepared before being allowed to enter – I was lucky to be allowed to carry in my tiny sketchbook when bags and bulky coats had to be left outside. I’ve visited four or five time over the years, but I’m still unprepared for the sudden change from the wide, open views of the mouth of the cave to the narrow, cold, dark passage. I find my attention drawn upwards – the roof is very high and the space feels something like a gothic cathedral. I’m startled by unexpected glimpses of fragments of imagery through windows made by stalactites and stalagmites.
There’s a fascinating mix of familiar drawings and ones that I’ve not really noticed before. The one that always touches me is the male reindeer leaning down to lick the forehead of a kneeling female. Those who drew here around 17,000BC chose and represented an act that we still find emotive – how amazing is that? I used my monotype image of this as our Christmas card this year, with a short poem:
The guide in the Font de Gaume cave said,
‘Look with humility. Many questions, few answers.’
Fragments of memories whirl in my sketchbook.
Drawings made in the dark tumble over each other.
A faint image of a reindeer kiss.
Noticed by our prehistoric ancestors.
Font de Gaume is known for the images of bison following each other in lines and occasionally meeting face to face. The colours here are prominent – red and yellow ochres with black manganese or engraved outlines. I was making a quick sketch of a group of these bison while a few people in the group were exclaiming and chattering as they gradually made out the forms (many of these images are hard to see at first). The guide quietly said, ‘Look with humility. Many questions, no answers.’ I thought that was so appropriate and rather beautiful, so wrote it on my drawing. This print acknowledges his contribution.
The groups of creatures here respond much more to being perceived, welcomed and explored than to being positioned in history or technique. They were made by people like us and they are still here for us to visit – perhaps not for much longer unless we take better care of them.
I’m always reluctant to turn back and sometimes it’s strange nearing the mouth of the cave as the wind can create a loud roaring noise that seems to call to the creatures in the cave. I’m sad to leave the cave and feel strange back in my own world. I notice that my eyes are watering and see tears flowing down the cheeks of companions.
This last print was made later, when I had the idea that the women (goddesses?) represented in the Combarelles cave, that is only a short walk away, might have visited Font de Gaume. So here they are.
I think sometimes what would I be if people didn’t hang art on their walls. I see now that I’d be a cave/wall painter. This is fascinating to think about who did these and what motivated them to do it in a particular way–what influenced them to draw in a certain way?