The two bison of Lascaux (Dordogne, France) are eye-catching cave paintings made about 17,000 years ago. I liked them because they are testosterone filled beasts but at the same time, they look cute with their large, round bodies and skinny legs.
During my study of this painting, I found five interesting features. First, the two bison have open mouths. Their open mouths play a big role in the story that is portrayed. Combined with their posture, one almost must conclude that the bison are running away with great urgency. Their open mouths seem to be the result of a fight or a sudden shock that makes them stampede in the opposite direction. For what they are running away, we don’t know for sure, but we may assume they run away from each other, hence the opposite directions, perhaps after a fight over dominance.
But perhaps not. Very few of us see bison frequently or for a long time. Nature documentaries on which most of us rely to see these magnificent beasts often focus on fighting bison because their fights are epic. That fighting picture is imprinted in our minds. But surely most of their lifetime bison do not fight. An alternative thought could be that the shaman/artist, being in a trance state, has seen the bison appearing from the same place of the wall, appearing from a ‘thin place’, a portal from and to the Other-or Underworld, hence the overlapping backsides of the bison.
Another aspect that is perhaps only visible to a trained artist eye is that of foreshortening. Foreshortening is a technical and artistic skill that is clearly visible here. Should you not know what foreshortening is, have a look at God by Michelangelo. Foreshortening is to portray or show (an object or view) as closer than it is or as having less depth or distance, as an effect of perspective or the angle of vision.
Now have a look at how the shaman/artist has drawn the bison, running in the opposite direction. Clearly, they are running towards the viewer, to both sides of the viewer, not away from the viewer. Their back-bodies are smaller in proportion than their front bodies; this is done to enhance the impression that the bison are running towards the viewer. Also, look at their hind legs. The bull on the left stands closer to the viewer than the bull on the right; his legs are a bit lower positioned creating the illusion he is closer to the front. In addition, the right bison’s back is visible above the left bison, which adds to the impression that the right bison is further away. This is very well executed and in full respect of the shape of the legs of the bison.
But this is not all. The shaman/artist has used not only anatomical positioning (legs and tails) and foreshortening to create spatial depth, he/she has also used red pigments on the body (hexagon) as to create a highlight which enhances the foreshortening technique in creating depth.
I like to mention another feature, however I am not in the position to check this in vivo. The two front legs of both bison that do the stampeding are distanced by a small unpainted area from the front bodies of the bison. Such detached front legs add to the impression of wild stampeding beasts. It is as if their front leg is moving so quickly that the shaman/artist can only suggest the wild movements by positioning the leg a bit away from the body. Last, have a look at the heavy fur of the wild beasts. The hair streams in the wind due to their escape from danger.
The shaman/artist who has painted the two bison has done it splendidly. Only the sound of the stampeding seems to be missing but perhaps the shaman created that sound with the help of drums or prehistoric peoples created the sound of stampeding inside the cave themselves. Both drum and stampeding people must have sounded impressive inside a cave, especially when the cave walls throw back the echoes.
For my first study I have focussed on colours; prehistoric cave paintings have beautiful ochre colours. I made a rough pastel sketch to get insight in which colours I needed.
My next study was about finding essential lines. Which are the most essential lines that make up a bison? Which lines shape a bison and set it apart from an ox, or from a Przewalski’s horse? Playing with the lines has resulted in an abstract version of Lascaux’s ‘Crossed Bison’.
For my final drawing, I have built the beasts with layers of heavy pigment coloured pencils (Faber-Castle and Luminance).
After finishing my third drawing, the result surprised me because my bison resemble Lascaux’s ‘Crossed Bison’ but are very different. So, let’s talk about how this study led to a different drawing despite applying foreshortening techniques and staying close to Lascaux’s Crossed Bison composition. Why does my drawing differ so much? The answers lie in the open mouths and the fur of the bison.
My bison haven’t stopped fighting because their mouths are peacefully closed mouths and their fur isn’t wildly shaken by their stampeding. One might assume that an open or closed mouth should not make such difference, but it certainly does. My bison don’t seem to run away for each other or for danger. On the contrary, they look at you naughty and even innocently, like two playing brothers or friends.
The open mouths of the Lascaux bison thus are essential to the story told by the cave painting. The skilful and admirable Lascaux’s artists drew perfect anatomy, showed highly developed artistic techniques, and even better, they told a story of two animals full urgency, perhaps because of hunting or fighting. The gasping for air during a fight or flight, due to running away with their heavy bodies make Lascaux’s bison seem to be in great and urgent stress. By closing their mouths and neglecting shaken-up fur -I only altered two details- I have created bison that seem to prance and romp about happily, perhaps even playfully.
Paintings as stories
All paintings tell stories. What a difference small changes make! To me, this supports the thesis that the shamans/artists of Lascaux painted all details of their cave paintings intentionally. They painted a story with supporting details. Change the details; change the story. By studying this cave painting, by re-creating it, and changing two details, I have brought to light how detailed this cave painting is and how essential details are for the story that is graphically told by Lascaux’s artists. The story itself remains a mystery. But at least we can guess a bit better by paying attention to all deliberately added details. Details are the building blocks of stories that are told from one generation to the next. Details safeguard us for altering stories due to forgetfulness, preferences, or imagination.
Bison of Lascaux by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Kuitenbrouwer’s Bison art study was published in Daub Poetry & Art Inspired by Prehistory, a publication by Simon de Courcey. Out of sale.
Le Blog of Lascaux.