Going Underground

09 12 lascaux horseOn this day in 1940 four French teenagers Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas were out exploring the countryside near Montignac in the Dordogne. There was a rumour of a secret tunnel that led underneath a river and led from Castel of Montignac to the Manor of Lascaux where there might be hidden treasure. The boys discovered a small hole in the ground under the roots of a fallen tree. They could feel cold air blowing up through the hole and hoped they had found an entrance to the tunnel.

They tried throwing stones into the hole to try to determine how deep it was. Then they decided to explore it. The boys made the hole large enough to squeeze through and found themselves sliding down a steep 15 metre long shaft. At the bottom they found themselves in a huge cavern. Being resourceful, adventuring sort of people they had oil lamps with them which they shone around the walls and ceiling. Marshal, who at fourteen was the youngest, remembers what he saw: a cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave; each animal seemed to be moving. All the images were brightly painted in reds, blacks, browns and ochres.

09 12 megalocerus lascauxWhat the four boys had discovered were the now famous Lascaux Cave Paintings which are believed to be at least 17,000 years old. The first cave they entered is now referred to as the Great Hall of Bulls. There are 36 bulls, horses and stags painted here. Four huge black bulls dominate the walls. The largest is 17 ft (5.2 metres) long. The cave consists of a series of passageways and almost 2,000 paintings can be found there. Some are painted using different coloured earths and charcoal others are scratched into the stone. Almost half are animals. Among them are paintings of animals that are now extinct such as the aurochs, a huge ancestor of the domestic cow, and the megalocerus, a giant elk. They truly are enormous, I’ve seen a skeleton in the National Museum of Scotland. Of the other animals, most are horses, but there are also stags, bison, seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros and a human.

The caves were opened to the public in 1948, after the war. Sometimes over a thousand visitors a day came to see the paintings. But a combination of all the carbon dioxide that they were breathing out and the water vapour created began to damage the paintings and the caves were closed again in 1963. The painting have suffered from various outbreaks of fungal growth since their discovery and preserving them is an ongoing project. You can still visit nearby Lascaux II which has replicas of some of the paintings.

The Paleolithic people who used the caves would have had lamps to illuminate their paintings. We know this because around 100 stone lamps were found around the floor of the cave. These would have been fuelled with animal fat with wicks made from moss, lichen or juniper. Some of the images seem to be drawn on top of one another, having more that one head, tail or several sets of legs. It was hard to determine why they did this. But then in 2012 an archaeologist called Marc Azéma and an artist called Florent Rivère wrote an article suggesting that when these images were viewed in the flickering light of a lantern, they may have looked as though they were moving. Remembering what young Marshal, one of the boys who discovered the cave, told of his first impressions I can well see this might be possible. Azéma spent twenty years looking at Stone Age animation techniques and has identified fifty-three figures in twelve French caves that superimpose two or more images. Twenty of them are at Lascaux. Some of them have been animated on video. Take a look, they’re fascinating.


Gone Girl

08 21 mona lisa 1On this day in 1911 the Mona Lisa was not where she should have been, she was not hanging in the Louvre in Paris. She had been stolen The theft was discovered when an artist called Louis Béroud arrived to make a sketch of Leonardo’s work for a painting he was working on. Confronted with only four iron pegs in the wall where the Mona Lisa once hung, he contacted the guards. They thought that the painting had probably been taken away to be photographed. Several hours later it turned out that the photographers didn’t have her either. The whole gallery was closed for a week whilst the theft was investigated.

08 21 mona lisa 2The poet Apolinnaire was arrested because he had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down. He said he thought it might have been his friend Pablo Picasso. He was brought in for questioning too. The pair were eventually exonerated but no one would know what had become of the painting for the next two years. Surprisingly, before the painting was stolen, it wasn’t that famous. After the theft though, thousand flocked to the Louvre to look at the empty space on the wall. They left notes and flowers. The museum had never been so busy.

08 21 mona lisa thiefEventually the thief turned out to be a former employee of the Louvre called Vincenzo Peruggia. He had gone into the museum during the day, hidden himself in a broom cupboard then come out after the museum was closed and simply helped himself. Peruggia had kept the painting hidden in his apartment for two years and was eventually caught when he tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Italy was his home country and he was fiercely patriotic. He believed that the painting should be returned to it’s native land. He imagined that it had been stolen by Napoleon, which was not true. He was sentenced to one year and fifteen days in jail for his crime. But in Italy, he was hailed as a patriot and released after only seven months.


08 16 bilibin 4Today is the birthday of Ivan Bilibin who was born in a suburb of St. Petersburg, Russia in 1876. He was an illustrator and theatre designer. I have to admit it, I hadn’t heard of him. It was really his name that drew my attention, but then I looked at his work.  I haven’t been able to find out much about the details of his life but his drawings are beautiful. They make me want to stop writing this blog and pick up a pencil instead.

08 16 bilibin 1I know that he was very influenced by Russian Folk Tales. He illustrated a book of them which was published in 1899. The drawing of the girl with the skull lantern is from that book. The story is called Wassilissa the Beautiful. It starts out a bit like Cinderella, then it gets weird. You can read it for yourself here.

Between 1902 and 1904 he travelled around northern Russia for the Ethnography Department of the Russian Museum. There he collected folk art and took photographs of old wooden buildings. He published a book about his findings called Folk Arts of the Russian North. The picture below is from the title page, He has designed the typeface too. I do like hand drawn letterin08 16 billibin 2g and these are lovely. Ivan drew a lot of inspiration from the patterns he found in Russian Folk Art. He loved the images he found in embroidery, printed fabrics and old illuminated manuscripts called lubki. He was also influenced by Japanese woodblock prints and Art Nouveau. He clearly loved pattern, you can see it in the ornate borders of many of his illustrations.

After the Russian Revolution he lived in Cairo for a while and then in Paris. While abroad he painted a lot of murals for Russian Orthodox churches and for private individuals. He returned to Russia after painting the Soviet Embassy in Paris in 1936. Ivan taught at the Russian Academy of Arts whilst also working as a book and theatre designer. He produced designs for Pushkin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Sergei Eisenstien wanted him to work on his film Ivan the Terrible but sadly, Ivan died during the siege of Leningrad in 1942.bilibin 4