Sunday, July 16, 2006

Woodchip Wallpaper and the Meaning of Cave Art

When I was a youngster, my family moved into a house that had woodchip wallpaper in the downstairs loo. Woodchip wallpaper is a kind of textured paper which has small flakes of wood incorporated into it during its fabrication. Each flake is a small, rough-edged and individual creation of different shape and size. Sometimes a number of flakes will aggregate together to form more complex clusters. The individual woodchips or the small clusters, however, form discrete elements in the wallpaper having little interaction with each other, a bit like falling snowflakes.

Every time I went to the loo, I would sit gazing at a patch of this white-painted woodchip wallpaper. As I gazed, certain chips or clusters of chips would begin to be reminiscent of a face, an object, an element of nature, a tree, a flower, a fence, and the more I looked, the more it came to seem like that thing it resembled, and the less it came to seem like anything else. Finally, the object would require to be named: it would be "The Gun" or "The Farmhouse", "The Robber" or "The Skull".

The next time I returned to the loo, the same objects would still be there. I would have no problem remembering them now, and what is more, the objects would be connected by an invisible line which marked out a narrative that had begun to develop between each one of the objects. The narrative was conjured up by the images and was driven by the individual elements as they were added. The invisible line connecting the objects grew steadily longer as I recognised new objects and perceived their place in the story. The story was certainly a slightly odd one, dreamlike in character, but it had its elements of drama as indicated by the titles of individual woodchips that I referred to earlier.

This story wasn't something I dreamt up one week and forgot about the next. Rather, it was one which sustained my imagination over months if not years. I never told anyone about my ongoing woodchip saga, but in fact, it was something I was quietly passionate about: both the daily repetition of the story and the addition of new elements into the extending "songline". (If you don't know what a songline is, then you must read Bruce Chatwin's book of the same title.)

I have been thinking about this after visiting the famous Font de Gaume cave in the Dordogne last week. This cave (pictured above) is now probably the best place for viewing original cave art in the Dordogne region. It is close to the town of Les Eyzies which houses France's national prehistory museum. The cave is not widely publicised and entry is limited to 200 people per day in order to keep the temperature inside low and the damage to the cave walls to a minimum.

I have also visited Lascaux II which is a perfect replica of part of the Lascaux cave, rightly renowned as the most beautiful and well preserved example of prehistoric cave art, certainly in France, if not in the world.

A common observation I took away from both these visits was of how sensitively the art had been overlaid onto the geomorphology of the cave interior. It is not an original observation and indeed it is something that is stressed by the guides that showed us around both Lascaux II and Font de Gaume.

The painters made no attempt to chisel flat the walls or to prepare a smooth surface on which to paint. Instead, they were intent on identifying the features already present in the rock and interpreting them through the addition of paint and fine chisel marks. The guide at Font de Gaume lifted his torch to create a shadow on a slight ridge in the rock, and it immediately became apparent that the shadow of the ridge defined the external form of the bison's head which was drawn there.

Like the indians in Papua New Guinea which I wrote about in a recent post who believed that the axe heads they chipped from the rock were already present in the rock, the prehistoric painters of reindeer, mammoth and bison in the Font de Gaume and Lascaux caves believed that the animals they were painting were also already there in the rock. All they had to do was identify their presence.

I feel certain that, as the painters identified the natural sculptural presence of these animals, a kind of narrative would have evolved for them similar to the kind of narrative I discovered through identifying real objects from ragged scraps of woodchip. Whether the narratives that were created might be readily interpretable to modern eyes I think is doubtful, but they would have been powerful enough to their creators and to anyone who was let in on the secret.


Anonymous said...

This is getting to be a very good blog indeed, Jonathan. Congratulations and keep going.

Susan said...

Just an excellent essay! The continuity is brilliant and the subject matter fascinating.

Patry Francis said...

This bears rereading. I will be back.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks to you all. And thanks also to Clare Dudman, who recommended this post to her readers here.