Looking at Art – Chinese Horse

Chinese Horse
c.15,000-13,000 BCE
Lascaux Cave, nr. Montignac, France

In the cinema, it is not uncommon to hear filmmakers cite paintings as part of their inspiration. It makes sense because film is primarily a visual medium, so the same elements of design & aesthetics present in painting are going to apply to movies. I only ever took basic art history classes in high school & college and know that I should be building my knowledge and understanding of this form. I want to appreciate visual art beyond moving pictures & comic books, so I’m starting by doing this series. In Looking at Art, I will pick a painting or sculpture and spend some time just looking at it, allowing myself to think about it & ask questions. Then, I’ll share some background information on the piece and wrap things up by synthesizing my questions and the facts. 

Going back to something ancient, an anonymous cave painting made sense. I chose Chinese Horse, one of the many Lascaux cave paintings. When I look at this piece of art, my mind immediately questions why. Why did the artist make this painting? In a modern context, we know painters paint as a form of personal expression or an act of participation in commerce. The latter doesn’t make sense in this context, but that does not mean it is the former by default. This painting would have been made in a dark cave without much lighting, so I assume firelight was used in its production. 

Was this painting done in the artist’s leisure time? Is it a decoration? Shading is present, which really surprises me and shows the artist was attending to the details of their work. Were they working from memory, or did they haul a dead horse there? I assume this was from memory, so why was it so important to capture that memory? Is this part of a story or merely a recreation of something observed in the environment? Was the artist painting this to teach other people like them? If so, what is the lesson being communicated? 

What significance did a horse have to this primitive culture? This predates the human domestication of horses by quite a significant amount of time, so what was a horse to them? A source of food? There appear to be stalks of grass put in around the horse’s legs, but not many. I’m also curious about the color. Where did the pigment for the burnt sienna on the horse’s upper half come from? Something created in the fire or material brought from outside the cave. 

Did this artist think about someone from many millennia later contemplating their work? Was that conception of time even something a person of this era would have thought about? How was time perceived by these people? How long did it take to paint this, and was it finished by the standard of the artist? Was this a way to pass the time or an effort to communicate with someone they would never meet? 

In the same way, when we create things, how much thought should we put into how they may be received beyond our lifetime? Should that even matter, or is it purely the thoughts & emotions of the present when creating that matter? Everything else is unimportant? What did the artist eat that day? Who did they interact with? What time of day were they working on this painting? How did they understand themselves concerning their subject?

So what do we know about the Lascaux cave paintings? It seems agreed upon by scholars that these are the best examples of art from the Paleolithic era. Lascaux has even been nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory.” Apparently, these paintings are found deep in the cave in places that would have been difficult for humans to reach, so very hidden away. The name comes from the modern people who discovered it, referencing a similar art style found during China’s Song Dynasty. What is interesting is that the closest modern-day horse we can see that resembles the one in the painting is located in Mongolia; small head & bulky body. 

Regarding technique, we know that the horse was outlined with a brush-like instrument. The color appears to have been sprayed on, likely from the mouth or through a hollowed tube tool, like a bone. There are symbols surrounding the horse that we don’t know the meaning of. Some theories say they are linked to ancient magic practices, an attempt to summon an animal that could have served a purpose as food or clothing for the person. Others think the symbols are just other attempts to capture grass blowing in the breeze, showing how the grass would bend as the horse pushed through them. 

Our understanding of the Lascaux cave paintings will always fall back on not knowing. Because all we have of these people is their paintings and no words or clearly decipherable symbols, the purpose of the art remains a mystery. The best we can do is to make connections between similar cultures that we know more about and assume that the human behaviors we see there are transferable to the unknown inhabitants of this cave. I’ve always felt comfortable in not knowing, in having certain things just exist as open-ended. That way, they can continually be fresh; creating a space to ask questions and not feel the burden of answers.

For me, Chinese Horse begins a conversation about the art that remains & the art that is destroyed. Throughout history, so much art has been lost purposefully or through neglect. Yet, there is also much art, like cave paintings, that endure whether the original artist intended them to or not. What does that say about what is being made now, in an era where so much art is made daily. The internet is a repository of so many people’s creativity. Is it good to have so much preserved, or is the destruction of art a necessary part of its life cycle? Should art exist for eternity, or should it die like its creators?

It also causes me to contemplate the nature of this blog. Do I want this thing to exist beyond my lifetime? If I do, what is the purpose of it? Should this be simply an expression of my thoughts on art, or is that not the purpose? Is the meaning simply what I determine, and the views of others are ultimately unimportant? When thinking about the mountain of digital art, what becomes of it when there are no longer systems left to read the devices it is contained on? A cave painting feels more enduring than something saved on the cloud. Digital art is ephemeral when we contemplate it in that sense. However, entropy will eventually destroy everything, so even the cave painting will be lost in time. 

What would a cave painting of a horse even mean to a horse? I don’t imagine they would see it because the lines used to create the artwork are subjective, and the human mind seeks out patterns to make sense of the senseless. Outside of human consciousness, does art continue to have meaning? Or, is art purely an experience our species’ mind can understand? Perhaps there are other forms of expression done by entities beyond our understanding that we fail to recognize daily. And we end this session of looking at art here, surrounded by questions, very few answers, but right where we belong.


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