On a September afternoon of 1940 in a quiet corner of the Dordogne in southwestern France, four teenagers were walking into the forest above the village of Montignac when their dog vanished into a hole. They crawled in to the rescue and stumbled upon one of the richest Stone Age art galleries in the world.
La Grotte de Lascaux, or simply Lascaux as it is commonly known, is a network of limestone caves located high above the Vézère River valley. Over 600 paintings decorate its interior walls and ceiling. The polychrome images in vivid black, brown, red, yellow and white, are estimated to date back between 17,000 and 20,000 years. They represent mainly large mammals known through fossil records to have been native to the area at the time. Beyond their numbers, scale and age, it is their exceptional quality and sophistication that make them one of the greatest treasure trove of Paleolithic art ever discovered.
Patrimony in Peril
Lascaux opened to the public in 1948 and soon more than 1,000 visitors a day came to see the Stone Age pictures that changed the way we think about our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Within a few years, the paintings, which had remained in pristine condition for millennia in a cave sealed by the formation of a protective layer of clay in the soil, began to deteriorate. To stop the damage from the carbon dioxide and the rise in humidity generated by the presence of visitors, the cave was permanently closed in 1963.
Conscious of the significance of Lascaux, the French Ministry of Culture funded the creation of an exact replica of the main areas of the cave, the Hall of Bulls and the Axial Recess, which together contain a majority of the artwork at the site. This Lascaux II, built on the same hill and only 200 meters (650 feet) away from the original cave opened in 1983. Since then, it has received over 10 million visitors. But in time, there began to be signs that the traffic of too many visitors on top of the hill was affecting the original cave.
Meanwhile, a traveling exhibit dubbed Lascaux III, consisting of five life-size panels of images not included in Lascaux II as well as a virtual tour of the entire cave, has been seen in a number of European, North American and Asian destinations since 2012.
The Birth of Lascaux IV
It was in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the cave’s discovery, that the International Center of Rock Wall Art of Montignac-Lascaux project was announced. Its mission was to give better public access to the treasures of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site and foster a better understanding of the history and meaning of Paleolithic cave art. A design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. The proposal of Norwegian architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a founding principal of Oslo-based Snøhetta design studio, was selected from a field of 80 entries from all over the world.
His sprawling concrete and glass structure is unobtrusively wedged into the base of the forested hill that contains both the original cave and its Lascaux II replica. Its design evokes a futuristic version of the rock shelters found throughout the Dordogne region.
The Lascaux IV Experience
Beyond the vast central reception area, the guided visit follows a thoughtfully choreographed itinerary, starting with a glass elevator ride to the Belvedere rooftop. From there, the view of the Vézère River valley and the village of Montignac is what the four boys would have seen on that long ago September afternoon. And in case we fail to make the connection, a discrete sound track in the woods evokes their presence and that of their adventurous canine companion. Then it’s down the slight incline of a canyon-like corridor open to the sky, into a dark projection space where a short film takes us back to the Magdalenian period (17,000 to 12,000 years ago) with its tundra landscape, woolly rhinos, bison, lions and Cro-Magnon men. Another brief walk outside and we reenter the building. Suddenly, we are in the cave, right at the boulder where the original exploration began.
A moment later, we arrive at the Hall of the Bulls. Although I have seen many reproductions over the years, the in-situ sight of the massive beasts in motion leaves me breathless. The cool temperature, the subdued lighting that hints at the flicker of oil lamps, the faintly stale cave smell, the muffled sounds, everything “feels right.” To allow full focus on the experience, digital devices don’t work in the cave, and photography is strictly prohibited.
As I go further into the tunnels, more animal figures keep coming at me, beautifully detailed stags with their elaborate antlers, galloping horses, fighting ibex and bison shedding their winter coat. As the passage narrows and its ceiling lowers, I find myself closer to red and black cows and polychrome horses. Their proximity makes it easier to spot how the original artists incorporated the faintest relief in the rock into their work.
Stone Age Art in Today’s World
The entire cave and its overwhelming paintings are reproduced down to millimeter accuracy. The latest advances in laser imaging technology, 3D digital scanning and printing enabled today’s artists to recreate every nook and cranny in minute detail. The use of polystyrene, resin and fiberglass “stone veil” coating recreated the walls and their covering, including the ubiquitous streaks of moonmilk and even the faint sparkle that still exist in places.
High definition images of the paintings were then projected onto this perfect Stone Age canvas and manually copied pixel by pixel. At the end of the passage known as the Axial Recess, I pass the famous painting of the falling horse, before looping back to a side passage with a herd of swimming deer on the right wall and two massive bison on the left. By the time I exit the cave, I am breathless with awe at the timeless power of the art within. Is this perfect duplicate any less powerful, less meaningful than the original? This is the source of much controversy, and ultimately a matter of personal opinion. For me, it evokes the same emotional reaction that expect I would I have experienced in the original.
The guided tour ends as we exit the cave and enter the Lascaux Studio, a vast hall where all the major works from the cave are represented in eight life-size units hanging from the ceiling. Some of the panels include ultraviolet demonstrations of prehistoric engraving and painting techniques. Here visitors are free to explore and snap pictures to their heart’s content. Guides remain on hand to answer any questions.
The Gallerly of Imagination
Further along, virtual reality stations enable visitors to scan the surface of the model and view the works from various vantage points within the cave.
The last space is the Gallery of Imagination, a digital cave where 90 large floating touch-screens explore the connections between cave art and contemporary art.
Good to Know
- Getting There The Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art) in Montignac, Dordogne, France, which is home to Lascaux IV, is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux, (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).
- Visiting – Lascaux IV is open daily throughout the year – Consult their website for opening hours, which vary with the seasons, and advanced tickets purchases (strongly recommended).
- The entire Lascaux IV site is fully wheelchair accessible.
- Lascaux was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 as part of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.
- In addition to Lascaux IV, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen credits include the Oslo Opera House, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City.
- Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy range of the Lascaux site. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel for its bucolic setting, superb gourmet restaurant and close proximity (eight kilometers, i.e. five miles) via a scenic back road from Lascaux.