If you want to see the beauty (and amazing skill) of these early paintings, you'd do well to check out Werner Herzog's new documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, although you may need to read Curtis' book for a fuller picture of the culture that produced this art. And, yes, I used the word "culture" advisedly.
Granted exclusive access to the Chauvet cave in France, Herzog and a small crew took 3-D cameras into the cave to photograph its paintings. Some of the folks with whom I saw Forgotten Dreams thought the 3-D was well used and that it added to their experience. I have to say that it left me feeling slightly woozy, even though I appreciated the sense of immediacy and presence it provided.
But on to the heart of the matter: The art we see is vibrant, sophisticated and accomplished. Paleolithic artists were able to suggest motion, and to make creative use of undulating cave surfaces. None of the work is marked by the crudeness that might have been ascribed to it by those of us who know little about Paleolithic life.
It's also fascinating to learn that humans did not inhabit the caves, but entered them to draw or to paint and possibly to conduct "religious" rituals. Herzog shows us a rock with a bear skull that has been placed on top of it. We may be looking at an early altar.
Those familiar with Herzog's work in documentaries such as Encounters at the End of the World and Grizzly Man know that he tends to make room for heightened commentary, the kind of observations that allow him to spar with a universe he can find mysterious, indifferent and unyielding. Normally, I go along for almost any journey Herzog takes, but for me Herzog proved the most troublesome feature of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I'm sure others will have precisely the opposite reaction, but this time I found Herzog's presence distracting.
Still, the fact that Herzog's camera has access to sights that none of us could see on our own makes the movie special. And, of course, the paintings are priceless. If you're intrigued by the idea that some of our earliest ancestors were interested in art, music (they played carved flutes) and spirituality, you can't help but be fascinated by what Herzog shows. When he allows his camera to survey the art in silence -- which happily he does -- the movie couldn't be better.