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Lascaux Show Headed to Montreal More Repro Than Reality

Field Museum, Chicago March 20 to September 8, 2013

In a memorable Gary Larson Far Side cartoon, a vacationing couple seems to survey and photograph an iconic mesa landscape, perhaps at the Grand Canyon. But beneath the tourists’ field of vision, someone sweeps dust out from under the “landscape,” and the mesas are revealed as fake scenery. Given what Walter Benjamin describes as the importance of “presence” to various experiences, these wayfarers would have been better off staying home and watching the Travel Channel.

The same can be said, to a degree, about “Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” currently on view at Chicago’s Field Museum and travelling to Montréal’s Centre des sciences in 2014. The show represents the curators’ best attempts to convince viewers that they are in the famed caves of southern France that contain 20,000-year-old illustrations of bulls, horses, deer and other animals. But the reproductions provided at the museum—and the Lascaux content consists only of reproductions, while the authentic artifacts in the show are drawn from nearby sites and periods—aren’t always up to the task.

Multimedia components of the exhibition do afford viewers the opportunity to draw copies of the Lascaux bulls. Other tools feature animations meant to simulate the “movement” of the drawings under candlelight and present the cave drawings as a type of early writing. But walking through the simulated cave, it’s impossible to get a proper sense of scale or of the true cave’s regions and passageways.

The exhibition’s benches are a comfortable touch, and one is sure to feel less claustrophobic in the large “cavern” at the Field rather than in the original. But there’s no romance to the slick and clean life-sized model, whose supports and crossbeams betray its similarity to the Far Side’s “mesas.”

A fascinating story, meanwhile, surrounds the real Lascaux, from the four teenagers who accidentally discovered it in 1940 to the mysteries that continue to surround the intentions—were the drawings, for example, sacred in nature or pragmatic attempts to triumph in the hunt?—and techniques of the Stone Age artists. After more than a million people descended into the caves between 1948 and 1963, Lascaux began to deteriorate and develop mold, and the French government closed the caves to the public. Now, the only way most people can experience the caves is through another replica, Lascaux II, which opened in 1983 and is located just a few hundred metres from the original.

With no alternative, seeing simulated caves is surely better than no caves. But the Field Museum release overstates the experience when it says that visitors “can experience the same thrill of discovery felt by those young cave explorers more than 70 years ago.” In fact, a film of the caves that plays in a loop at the exhibit is far more thrilling than the simulated cave.

The life-sized sculptures of Stone Age cave people by Elisabeth Daynès that are installed in the model cave are expertly rendered and debunk some of the myths surrounding cave people. The sculptures suggest Stone Age people demonstrated a remarkable attention to detail in their fashion, tools and jewellery.

But Daynès’s sculptures are unfortunately placed in the cave simulation, and as such represent yet another anachronism. Part of the caves’ appeal is the mystery surrounding their creators, and the inclusion of the sculptures in the simulation comes off as tacky.

The exhibit does do a fantastic job of keeping visitors apprised of the latest technological developments related to Lascaux.

In the entrance to the exhibit, technology is used in a particularly compelling way as a light illuminates an original limestone engraving of “running horses” found near Lascaux and dating from 10,000 to 17,000 years ago. The light emphasizes its engraved lines, which can be difficult to discern independently, and then it fades to give viewers a chance to see the original marks made on the rock. That kind of opportunity to engage and dialogue with an object—devoid of digital simulation, improvement, or commentary—is absolutely essential, but unfortunately increasingly rare.

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