“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is one of the great films about image-making. Werner Herzog’s documentary explores the cave paintings at Chauvet Pont d’Arc, France, first discovered in 1996. The oldest works are about 30,000 years old.
Herzog’s thesis about cave paintings is that the flicker of fire, the shadows of people, the contours of the cave walls produced a cinematic effect. The film encourages us to think of cave paintings as proto-movies, but it also relates to photography. Here’s how:
adapt to lighting
Herzog exploits limitations of the particular lighting situation in the cave, just as the original artists did. He shows his raw test footage in the cave, then the improved 3D footage - the cave painters also learned and adapted to the light in the cave. This is certainly true in photography - the photographer can go into a situation with expectations, try her best to predict and control it, sometimes fail, but always focused on adaptation for the next time. In photography this means missing shots, in the primitive cave, losing light meant death.
The photograph is never just a document of the subject depicted, but also the lighting conditions the photographer has discovered or created.
multiple dimensions on the flat surface
Spoken language and representational two-dimensional images are recent technologies, less than 100,000 years old, compared to the use of fire, which is about 400,000 years old. Along with the forms of real animals in motion, the artists were able to get their imaginations on the wall, with renderings of a creature that is half-animal and half-woman.
“A two-dimensional surface is incredibly fascinating because you can put more and more dimensions into it. It has always fascinated me and it must be the same with anyone who makes pictures. I’ve noticed this is true in movies, certainly the ones I react to and watch over and over again. Jacques Tati made marvelous use of the screen as a surface to show you space. You make the space in your head from his suggestions on flat surface. That is much more thrilling than any attempts there have been at 3D, which are silly.”
- David Hockney, 1986, from “On Photography”
In terms of surface, the photograph and cinema are the flattest images. The paintings at Chauvet are not two dimensional images - the cave walls are never flat, and perhaps they sit at a midway point between sculpture and painting. Herzog’s decision to make this a 3D movie is genius because it also represents a sort of midway point, especially when most other 3D films are generated computer geometry. His film comments on the shading techniques, the modeling of both the cave artists and contemporary computer artists that make films like Cars 2 and Avatar. Rather than embracing it with a shit eating grin, Herzog is poking at this format, questioning it.
Hockney’s critique of photography is not unlike the critique many have had of 3D movies - the simulation of space and dimensions from single or multiple fixed perspective points is a cultural product that we’ve come to accept as “realistic,” ignoring the limitations.
describing motion: to capture or suggest
Herzog never simulates torches crackling, but shows how animals in the shadows were living on the walls. So many cave paintings from this period show running animals, that it’s difficult not to see them as a document of motion. Paintings also document an artist’s movements. When you draw the back of lion with a two meter stroke, in one sweeping gesture, 30,000 years later another person can easily imagine the motion of your arm.
The painters at Chauvet experimented with two methods that Herzog discusses: shading that suggests motion blur and multiple sets of legs. Even though the modern shutter has narrowed time, from one second to 1/4000th, the choice of how to describe motion in photography is similar:
-suggest motion (motion blur)
-capture motion (awkward form)
Muybridge’s horses are a masterpiece of conceptual art, but if the painting of a horse is a poem about motion using the motion of arm, Muybridge’s grid is an alphabet of motion. They built an outdoor studio with lime powder, so that the horse would be a black outline on bright white. The Chauvet horses are specific horses, Muybridge’s horses are anonymous, to represent the motion of all horses.
Only one generation later a boy with a Brownie camera, Jacques Henri Lartigue, also created motion studies of new, fast animals: speeding cars, tennis players, aeroplanes. Essential to understanding Lartigue is that his motion studies are about the absurdity of the awkward form. His genius was to be one of the first to realize this humor and chase it.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Swimming Pool at Château de Rouzat, My Cousin Jean Haguet, 1910
Muybridge’s motion studies are the result of a famous debate with his benefactor Leland Stanford: to determine if all the horse’s feet ever leave the ground at once.
Lartigue’s motion studies have the best element of Muybridge’s, they capture the airborne instant, in a pose you never really see. But Lartigue is also focused on his subject’s personalities, so they are just as much portraits as motion studies.
As Muybridge’s equipment got more advanced, he exhausted a Noah’s Ark of animal studies. He had an indoor studio and studied human movement, doing various activities: jumping, walking, climbing. In the later studies you can see people’s faces. But the studies got particular: woman with a fan, spanking a baby, nude men playing leapfrog.
individuality and artistic innovation
One of the common types of cave paintings was the handprint. A man at Chauvet with a deformed pinky finger worked in several rooms of the cave. This is considered to be the first time an artist could be identified from one location to another. After the first person put his or her hand on the wall and outlined it, did he or she chastise the next person that copied it?
Herzog mentions that somebody finished a drawing thousands of years after it was started. There was a persistent style of cave art, across a wide region, for thousands of years. This could reflect a human society that existed barely above survival, and could not innovate pictorially. Or a society without any concept of the individual. Our modern idea of art mirrors the process of life, like DNA, when it copies itself, it always makes slight differences, so that after generations it’s always different. Given that representational images were developed like any technology, how is it possible they maintained the same style for so long?
Cave paintings from this era have acted like a mirror for modern culture. A cubist painter sees cubist elements, the film director sees cinema, the photographer sees a decisive moment. It’s difficult to imagine that these paintings might be a small sliver of the artistic output of this culture, the rest of it painted on skins, exterior walls and other degradable surfaces.
In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” Herzog points out that he couldn’t avoid having scientists and crew in shots, because they only had a small path to shoot from. But seeing modern people in the cave is essential to the film. Time with the paintings is reflected in their faces. The headlamps and modern clothing don’t prevent them from becoming stand-ins for the artists. The power of this film is deep empathy; it’s the strange feeling of sharing the same brain as people from 30,000 years ago.