Prehistoric Art in Modern and Contemporary Creations

Talk about an everlasting influence

By Google Arts & Culture

Abbé Breuil in front of Lascaux's entranceGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

When a number of authentic cave paintings and engravings were discovered in Spain and France at the turn of the 20th century, it became common knowledge that our distant ancestors had an incredible artistic drive.

Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The 1994 discovery of the Chauvet Cave completely shattered society’s ideas on the chronology of prehistoric art: 36,000 years ago, artists demonstrated a level of creativity and genius that once seemed impossible.

Inside the Bauge Chamber of the Replica (2014-09-04/2014-09-04) by S. Compoint/ResoluteGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today, visitors flock to see the caves that are still open to the public and the incredible replicas of those not yet accessible. They discover a world of beauty and mystery that both fascinates and challenges them.

Horses panel (Chauvet cave) (2006/2006) by L. GuichardGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The creations by prehistoric artists portray subjects and issues that speak across the millennia to other fellow artists. How has prehistoric society communicated their universal messages through the images and sculptures they have left us? 

Man-Lion (Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany) by Université d'Ulm/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

How did they create such powerful works with limited tools at their disposal? How can you not be humbled by these masterpieces from another age? With five modern and contemporary examples, let’s take a look at how prehistoric art continues to influence modern artistic creation.

In the Chauvet cave, facing the panel of Horses (France) (2015/2015) by J.PachoudGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Space and time

Caves are both a hostile and protective environment. In the darkness and complexity of caves, all senses are on alert for ground-level hazards and the potential lurking danger of animals or other humans. However, a cave’s enveloping nature also offers security—once the cave and its layout is understood.

Sculture di linfa (2007) by Giuseppe PenoneMAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts

The work by Giuseppe Penone, created for the 2007 Venice Biennale, uses manipulated natural materials: damp leather hung on bark on the walls, carved marble veins on the ground, and a carved tree trunk filled with resin. 

Upon entering the art space, the visitor has a sensory experience which reflexively changes their view (the discovery of an unexpected closed space), their sense of smell (the smell of leather and resin), their hearing (sounds muffled by the leather and bark), and their sense of touch (the uneven cracked ground).

Primal feelings take us back to our animalistic nature and respond to those we experience upon entering caves frequented by prehistoric man.

Big Bisons (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Energy and the animal

The most impressive symbols in prehistoric art are the depictions of animals that can be found almost everywhere that prehistoric man left their mark.

A piece from the panel of the so-called "Chinese horses" (Lascaux) (1990/1990) by Ministère de la Culture et de la CommunicationGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The painted, engraved, or sculpted beasts which decorate caves and prehistoric shelters remain the most fascinating aspect for the public that discovers them.

Vogelherd Horse (Germany) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by Université de Tübingen/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Behind the realistic or abstract depictions of mammoths, aurochs, lions, horses, and any other creatures adorning the walls, visitors feel instinctively that they are confronted with images that seem to express beliefs from the depths of humanity.

Toro (1954) by Pablo Picasso & Egidio CostantiniHakone Venetian Glass Museum

Throughout his career, Pablo Picasso was fascinated by the theme of bulls. For him, as for many of his distant predecessors, bulls evoked the energy and brute strength of life force. This was a topic which brought him, and many others, back to the very first works of art.

It is said that Picasso, on the topic of prehistoric art, once said the appreciative and disillusioned words: “We have invented nothing!”

Wooly Rhinoceros (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Movement and remains

Remains and imprints left by prehistoric artists might speak more to modern and contemporary artists than to anybody else, besides archeologists.

"Positive-hand" technique (2006/2006) by SMERGC / Perazio / GuichardGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Altering a medium such as a cave wall by painting or blowing color onto it to create an abstract or realistic symbol that can provoke a thought or an emotion is the basic action of any visual artist: nothing has changed in 36 thousand years.

3 Decembre 1966 (1966/1966) by Pierre SoulagesChrysler Museum of Art

Pierre Soulages often said that prehistoric art had been a revelation to him when he discovered it during his adolescence. The fact that humans ventured into the uncertain darkness underground to paint black or ochre symbols and figures proves their need to express something or to leave evidence.

Soulages’ paintings are also markings left in grooves on the surface of the canvas, normally black, and onto which the light works the materials by providing depth, reflections and different nuances, depending on the angle. This is reminiscent of how prehistoric paintings were illuminated by torches.

Chandelier with Hands (2006) by Thomas HirschhornThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Physical and spiritual

With shapes reminiscent of meat cuts, and hands outstretched to the sky, this work by Thomas Hirschhorn challenges interpretation and evokes the two elements of humanity: the physical and the spiritual.

The physical is the large shapes attached to the wooden structure. They represent food—a quest that was undoubtedly prehistoric man's main activity. Here, they are suspended above the ground, as they would have been in shelters or huts to keep the meat from spoiling or from being scavenged.

The spiritual is represented by the chandelier of hands. They are reminiscent of those who, throughout the millennia, have left their fingerprints on the cave walls, which move us profoundly when we see them. 

They are the direct remains of these distant humans who seem to have left us signs of their presence through time, whilst wanting to feel, through touch, the spirit world which they may have believed to be behind the stone.

Abbot Breuil in the cave of Lascaux faces the panel of the Unicorn. (1940/1940)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Time and memory

The prehistoric works of art that have endured managed to do so thanks to exceptional circumstances allowing preservation. For all the intact paintings and complete sculptures, how many have disappeared, swallowed into the darkness of time? 

Engraved Horse by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

And how many of those which have survived have been modified, reworked, covered?

Mural by Banksy by BanksyGlobal Street Art Foundation

Street art is usually created on walls in public areas, conveys ideas through images and symbols, and is sometimes covered or damaged which adds to its character.

Mural by Banksy by BanksyGlobal Street Art Foundation

It poses the question of the perception of street art by authorities which consider it to be vandalism. Would they do the same to the cave art in Chauvet or Lascaux?

Felines (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The discovery of prehistoric art in 1881 opened the door for 20th- and 21st-century artists to experience a world of creation that had been completely forgotten for thousands of years. Whether our distant ancestors' works are discovered through books or seeing them in the caves themselves, their impact is impressive.

Punctuated Animal - Brunel Room (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Without leaving a single written or spoken word, instead painting and engraving the walls of their cave retreats, prehistoric artists showed the possibility of artistic expression as a timeless and universal language. From Picasso to Banksy, there are not many artists today who have not bowed to the legacy of their distant and anonymous masters.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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