You can’t read this excellent article by Judith Thurman, biographer of Isak Dineson, on the Paleolithic cave art of Southern France at the New Yorker web-site, but you can read it via Art & Letters Daily. Go figure.
We don’t know the purpose for which the images were made. We don’t understand why Paleolithic artists almost entirely avoided the depiction of human beings. But we marvel at their representational accuracy and their ability to move us emotionally across a separation of tens of thousands of years of time.
During the Old Stone Age, between thirty-seven thousand and eleven thousand years ago, some of the most remarkable art ever conceived was etched or painted on the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain. After a visit to Lascaux, in the Dordogne, which was discovered in 1940, Picasso reportedly said to his guide, “They’ve invented everything.” …
(The) earliest paintings (at Lascaux) are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, (Gregory) Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.
Read the whole thing.