George Chaloupka
Researcher on the rock art of Australia

George Chaloupka is an Australian authority that specializes in the rock art of northern Australia with a special focus on the Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land. His interests include the parietal art of India, south-east Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, the 'bridge' to the Australian continent.

My background lies in a northern region of Australia first occupied by a colonising group of Homo sapiens some 60,000 years ago, a date given by archaeological evidence of sites located in the present day Kakadu National Park. Amongst the cultural material recovered from their lowest levels were faceted pieces of hematite and other ochreous materials used to prepare paint, documenting the almost simultaneous commencement or continuation of the group's aesthetic activities. The descendants of this original group went on to conquer the rest of the continent, a land of climatological extremes. They left behind a rich heritage as rock art sites are found wherever suitable rock formations are available. There may be 20,000 or more such sites, as 5,000 rock art sites are known to be in Kakadu. The rock art images document dramatic environmental changes and introduction or demise of animal and plant species as well as people's adoptive strategies and cultural changes. The art reveals modes of human experience, behaviour and relationship patterns and the ephemeral objects of their material culture.

Even with all this evidence, we lack absolute dates for much of the rock art sequence, as the early Australian paintings executed in red paint cannot be dated by present day techniques. Consider then the surprise and satisfaction on receiving news of discovery of the Chauvet cave followed by the release of dates showing that sophisticated art was being made in Europe some 32,000 years ago. These dates dispelled the long-held notion about the first appearance of art and its development. There was no evidence in this cave of tentative and simple representations that are thought to be at the beginning of art, on the contrary, the depicted subjects revealed the complete mastery of sophisticated techniques of representation.

The October 2001 visit to Grotte Chauvet in the Ardèche Valley was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I was instantly overwhelmed by the stunningly executed paintings and by their setting. When visiting other cultural places and monuments, be it the Sistine Chapel, Louvre, Ajanta Cave, the temple of Angor Wat, or the clay army at Xian, the spiritual experience is often tempered by the disturbing presence of other visitors. I was privileged to descend into the interior of the pristine Chauvet cave alone with Dr. Jean Clottes, leader of its multidisciplinary research team. I could not have had a better introduction to the cave, for Dr. Clottes, who seems to know its every man made mark, lives and breathes rock art and has a passionate way of expressing his knowledge. Although I have previously visited a number of French and Spanish caves with Upper Palaeolithic art, including Lascaux, and seen photographs of images from the Chauvet cave in publications and had some idea of what to expect, on my introduction to is interior I was overwhelmed by the art's complexity and sophistication.

Some of the techniques used by the Chauvet artists in their execution were familiar as the hand stencils and imprints, blown marks and the drawing and paintings skills. The accomplished drawings in charcoal, however, have no equivalent in Australian rock art and elsewhere. And, where the Australian rock shelters only marginally protect the paintings found within, if at all, from the agents of deterioration, the Chauvet's cave environment, isolated perhaps for the past 26,000 years, appears to have preserved the painted images in their original glory. If anything, the crystalline 'sheen' that has formed over some images enhances their appearance.

During my visit I was able to closely observe the images (some with the aid of binoculars as visitor's movement through the cave is strictly controlled), discuss the techniques used in their execution and admire the naturalism of the groups of bears, horses, rhinoceroses, lions and mammoths - some of the fourteen animal species represented here. Bears, demonstrating that they were the masters of this sanctuary before humans, made the first marks on the cave's walls. Their claws scratched deeply into the soft surface high above the ground as they stood and stretched on their hind legs and pounded the wall. Numbers of bears skulls and other remains are now found embedded in the glazed floor, a rose shimmer in the light of our lamps. One of the next visitors, the artist of the Chauvet cave picked one of the skulls and placed it on a rock. Was there a purpose behind this action? And why did the bears cease using the cave?

It is not surprising that every visitor to the Chauvet cave first comments on its dramatic setting and the great masterpieces of art within it. Although stylistically similar to Lascaux and other Magdalenian sites, the art of the Chauvet cave stands apart from others. Chauvet's complex compositions are executed over prepared rock surfaces, where pictorial depth is achieved through shading and the overlapping of subjects. The depicted animal species are drawn in firm, unfaltering lines, the charcoal having been worked into flat tints or skilled relief that provide a sense of depth.

Looking at the pride of lions streaking nominally across the wall, I wondered what Pablo Picasso, that old shaman of an artist, could now add to his comment about the art of Lascaux when visiting the cave soon after its discovery. "We have discovered nothing", he said about modern art and artists, for the artists of the Lascaux and now those of the Chauvet cave were magicians of aesthetic creativity.

The sensitive depictions of the given animal subjects attained by the Chauvet artists may suggest a special association with all the species of their environment. Their depictions portray no fear of the dangerous species and in contrast they celebrate their vitality, strength and swiftness. The animals are closely observed, the artists showing intimate knowledge of all aspects of their behaviour. We can make inferences concerning the meaning of these images from their visual attributes. These attributes suggest that the artist identified their own existence and vitality with these animals and that it may have been these creatures that gave impulse to their religious beliefs.

The Chauvet cave rivals the famous Lascaux in the sheer number, diversity, originality, beauty, and state of conservation of its works of art. However, the powerful, sophisticated compositions of suites of dangerous animals, impressive in the techniques used to present perspective, volume and motion, and the emotive physicality of the depicted acts stand alone amongst the world's body of rock art. The complex art of Chauvet cave suggests that its creation was not a 'one-off' event. Within the wider Ardèche region there may be many other, as yet hidden sanctuaries, visited and painted by the same group of artists or their kin. However, the paintings reveal only one aspect of the artist's creative abilities. One wonders what else they may have achieved in perishable materials outside the cave's realm, where their lives would have been equally creative and inventive.

Some unanswered questions, however, remain to puzzle me. In the first chambers most of the images were executed in the red pigment, while the deeper parts of the cave are dominated by black representations. The red images consist of signs, hand stencils and imprints, and animals executed as silhouettes or in simple outlines, while the black images are dominated by naturalistic representations of mainly dangerous species, depicted in powerful movement. Why is there a spatial division between these red and black images? And why is there so comparatively little physical evidence about the artists' activities in the cave other then rock art? In Australia's major rock art regions, almost from the very beginning of their creative activities the artists also portrayed themselves, their kin and the religious personages of their cosmogony. Why the preponderance in the Chauvet cave (as in the other European sites of the Aurignacian and the Magdalenian period) of animal over human images?

My visit to the Chauvet cave also allowed me to meet and engage with other members of the research team, each an acknowledged expert in their respective fields, and to become acquainted with their detailed recording and analytical techniques, and their insights. I admire their dedication to this project and their non-destructive study of the cave's interior. One member of this research team is a prehistorian as well as an artist. As most images in the Chauvet cave were executed in the drawing mode, and as a drawing consists of a series of actions carried out in time, a practicing artist, aware of the character and qualities of the sequence which went into their composition can discern the order in which their component parts were executed. Such an analysis of a set of images can provide additional details of their structure and superimpositions, and allow the investigator to comment how the artist's conceptual forms relate to reality.

I also would like to commend the French authorities for the degree of protection, preservation and conservation afforded the Chauvet cave and its contents, and for the generous support of the scientific team's research activities. I left with a greater appreciation and understanding of European Palaeolithic art, and a belief that the early Homo sapiens, wherever in the world they lived, may have commenced their first expressive art activities at approximately the same time, as an early commencement of complex imagery is also indicated by the African, Australian and Indian rock art record.