Prehistoric or Postmodern?

Discover how cave art made a comeback, from neo-expressionism to now, by guessing if these zoomed-in pics are ancient or new

By Google Arts & Culture

Christian Hillaire in front of bisonGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The history of art begins with cave paintings at sites like Chauvet and Lascaux in France, and others worldwide. 

The technique and vision behind these works is more complex and skilful than many realise.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) by Georges SeuratThe Art Institute of Chicago

And, at certain key moments in modern history, painters have gone back to these techniques to push art forward into new and exciting zones.

Seurat owes his advances in Pointillism to the Chauvet dots…

Quene 1-AM (2004) by Damien HirstContemporary Art Platform (CAP) Kuwait

...and contemporary art, too, borrowed its boldness from the Brunel Chamber.

Sometimes the influence of cave painting on contemporary art is so pronounced it can be difficult to tell them apart. Can you guess when the following zoomed-in works were made?

Toros - Illustration, 1960 (1960) by Pablo Ruiz PicassoMuseus Castro Maya

How old is this horned beast?

Though it draws on a figurative style resembling the Chauvet animals, this is a Picasso sketch from 1960. The Spanish master of high-modernism used the bull and bullfighter as a motif in many works, drawing on the pared-back style of cave paintings to make simple, symbolic pictures.

Dos personajes atacados por perros (1983) by Rufino TamayoMuseum of Latin American Art

Is this a prehistoric dog?

Nope! This angry pup was painted in 1983 by Mexican artist, Rufino Tamayo. Two People Attacked by a Dog is a characteristic Tamayo painting in that it uses sparse elements and a mixture of figurative and abstract techniques to tell stories in a spiritual manner. Much like the cave paintings at Chauvet.

Caveman,China (2006/2006) by Andrew RogersRhythms of Life

How old is this stick figure?

Though this massive piece of land art looks like the work of an ancient community, it's actually from the 21st century. Andrew Rogers' Cave Man (2006) occupies a 150 square-metre patch of the Gobi Desert in China, and was made in collaboration with 1000 Chinese soldiers.

Cul Pre-His Art 2 (Cave Paintings)LIFE Photo Collection

Is this smiling bison prehistoric or postmodern?

This cheeky guy appears on the walls of the Altamira cave network in the Cantabria region of Spain. 

Man from Naples (1982) by Jean-Michel BasquiatGuggenheim Bilbao

Neolithic or neo-expressionist?

Jean-Michel Basquiat created a contemporary language of symbols by drawing on his own origins as a graffiti artist, and calling back to the origins of all human art with his stick-figure bodies and animal heads. He was particularly influenced by Yoruban culture and Latin American art, as a Haitian-American with a great interest in African history. 

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

Where and when is this work from?

From the Chauvet caves, of course! The dynamic murals of The End Chamber blew away the accepted notions of ‘primitive’ cave art with their complex handling of perspective, form, and motion. Painted around 36,000 years ago, they represent a real cave-art Renaissance.

Bald Eagle, 1955 © Pollock-Krasner Foundation (1955/1955) by Lee Krasner and The Pollock-Krasner FoundationBarbican Centre

Ancient art or abstract expressionism?

This is Lee Krasner’s painting, Bald Eagle (1955). Krasner was married to Jackson Pollock, and in fact moved into pure gestural abstract painting before he did, directly influencing his famous drip-paintings. The palette of her works is more subtly toned than other New York abstract painters, and recalls the hues of paint and stone at Chauvet. Treating the canvas as a two-dimensional surface rather than creating the illusion of three-dimensions can also be seen to recall a cave painter’s treatment of their walls.

Girl with a Cross (1911) by Georges BraqueKimbell Art Museum

Georges Braque or Brunel Room cave painting?

Here is Georges Braque’s Girl With a Cross (1911-1912). The Cubists, like Braque and Picasso (at certain points in his career) reduced people and objects to geometric shapes, believing that this better expressed things like motion, multiple viewpoints, and the increasingly mechanical world of human beings. Their methods owe much to the ways in which the Chauvet artists used simple forms on a two-dimensional surface to communicate action over time.

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

Hands-up who thinks this is a modern work?

If you raised your hand, you’ve got this one wrong, unfortunately! These are the famous hands from the walls of the Red Panels Gallery in the Chauvet caves. They’re a rare intrusion of the human form into the cave’s pictures, and their meaning is disputed.

Kuru Ala (2009) by Wingu TingimaArt Gallery of New South Wales

Cave painting or contemporary painting?

This vibrant work was done in 2009 by Wingu Tingima, an Aboriginal artist from Australia. She painted exclusively in the style of the Western Desert traditions in which she was raised. An extraordinary fact about Tingima is that she only started painting in the final 10 years of her life. She died in 2010, aged 80, and her dream-inspired work is considered among the most important Australian art. 

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