It's the surprises we remember, those unexpected revelations that catch our imagination. For me, the best moments are those that teach me something new, a new perspective that hadn't occurred to me before. I've found those insights in marvelous books like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and in some quite unexpected places.
I will never forget the first time I saw a prehistoric cave painting. The cave itself was in the Dordogne region of southern France, at the foot of a cliff dominated by a castle that had been a key position in the Hundred Years' War. I was able to visit the cave (which was not on any tourist maps) when a friend gained access for a painting class he was teaching. We entered the mouth of the cave, and the few markings on the walls were downright disappointing. My specific memories of that afternoon are somewhat vague, but I recall the central event precisely. Going around a corner, my flashlight suddenly came on the figure of a horse jumping out of the wall towards me. The three dimensionality of the rock wall became part of the image, painted in hues of red and yellow that were brilliant after thousands of years. The horse's head and upper torso seemed to leap out of the rock that formed them, with an energy that startled me even though I knew exactly what I was looking at.
Imagine someone in that cave with only fire to light the walls. Someone was here who could see the shapes of that stone, half hidden in flickering flames, and recognize the animal energy already there. Someone who was probably more concerned with daily survival still was driven to paint the horse that seemed to be emerging. The need to create, to make a visual statement so powerful that has not lost its force many centuries later (and which came to my mind immediately when asked about "my favorite" visual idea) -- I know no better paradigm for inspiration. We don't know why our ancestors painted inside caves. We don't know how this fit into their ritual life or their communal memory. One thing we do know: among those ancient people lived some whose visual genius will challenge us for a long time to come.
(You can see images of recently discovered paintings in caves at Combe d'Arc (Ardèche) at the French Ministry of Culture's Internet site.)
Copyright © 1996 by Bill Barrett and the Webster University Journal