Animals in Art

Article excerpt


It is a brand-new school year and another year of the Arts & Activities Art Print Series, so it is only fitting to start at the beginning: with the earliest known examples of visual expression.

Often called the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art, the famous Altamira cave at Santillana del Mar in Cantabria Province--near the Northern coast of Spain and northwest of Bilbao--is a prehistoric gallery of delicately and ingeniously rendered images of mammals, some dating back nearly 40,000 years.

Close to 300 meters in length, its passages and chambers reveal the Stone Age artists' exquisite renderings of deer, bison, horses and other animals, some long extinct, coexisting in a setting that defies imagination and asks far more questions about the creative impulse than can be answered.

"The cave of Altamira is the epitome of humankind's creative spirit. All the essential features of art converge at Altamira par excellence. Artistic techniques (drawing, painting, engraving), the treatment of shape and use of the medium, large formats and three dimensionality, naturalism and abstraction, symbolism: it's all here at Altamira." (en.museodealtamira)

The way in which the cave paintings were discovered could easily be the stuff of fiction. In 1879, amateur archaeologist Manelino Sanz de Sautuola and his young daughter, Maria, were in the field searching through caves, looking for relics and artifacts of scientific interest. While her father was examining bones scattered on the cave floor, Maria looked up and uttered her famous line, "Papa, look. Oxen."

The rest is history, although it wasn't until 1902 that the paintings were officially authenticated as examples of Paleolithic art. In 1985, the Altamira caves were named a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Unfortunately, due to deterioration caused by bacteria and other microbes found in human exhalation, the caves are now closed to the public.

Not far from the actual cave is the Museo de Altamira, which houses the "Neocave," a near-exact replica of the actual caves and their wondrous works of art. …