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In his new book, Gregory Curtis introduces us to the spectacular cave paintings of France and Spain—to the men and women who rediscovered them, to the varied theories about their origins, to their remarkable beauty and their continuing fascination.
He takes us with him on his own journey of discovery, making us see the astonishing sophistication and power of the paintings, telling us what is known about their creators, the Cro-Magnon people who settled the area some 40,000 years ago.
Beginning in 1879 with Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who found the astonishing paintings on the ceiling of a cave at Altamira, Curtis takes us among the scholars of prehistory, the archaeologists, the art historians who devoted their lives to studying and writing about the paintings. Among them: the famous Abbé Henri Breuil, who lay on his back in damp caves lit only by a lantern held patiently aloft by his faithful—and silent—female assistant, to produce the exquisite tracings that are the most reproduced renderings of the art; Max Raphael, the art historian who first understood that the animals on the walls were not single portraits but part of larger compositions; the beautiful Annette Lamming-Emperaire, resistance fighter turned archaeologist, whose doctoral thesis was so important that all theory since has flowed from her work; Jean Clottes and others still working as new caves and information come to light.
In his own search for the caves’ meaning, Curtis takes us through the major theories—that the art was part of fertility or hunting rituals, or used for religious or shamanistic purposes, or was clan mythology—examining the ways in which ethnography, archaeology, and religion have influenced the thinking about the cave paintings over time.
The Cave Painters is rich in detail, personalities, and history—and permeated with the mystery at the core of this art created so many thousands of years ago by human beings who had developed, perhaps for the first time, both the ability for abstract thought and a profound and beautiful way to express it.
“For centuries, people have been going into caves in France and Spain, looking at the 30,000-year-old pictures painted there and asking, ‘What can they be?’ In this lively survey, Curtis makes it clear that while we’ll never have a definitive answer, the quest will always be fascinating. . . . For readers who may never visit the caves, Curtis’s sensitive narration gives a chance to share that encounter with mystery.”