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Did art peak 30,000 years ago? How cave paintings became my lockdown obsession

Portraiture, perspective, impressionism, movement, mythology: cave artists could do the lot. And I have spent the past year on a virtual odyssey of their primordial wonders

I was recently awoken in the night by lions, their eyes glaring in the dark from blunt rectangular faces as they stalked bison through an ancient, arid grassland. As I came to, however, I realised I was not about to be eaten alive. This was simply one of the perils of spending too much time looking at images of cave art on the web.

Cave artists could do it all. The faces of the animals they painted are exquisite portraits, while their bodies are rendered in perfect perspective. But wait – weren’t these supposed to be the great achievements of European art? After all, in his classic study The Story of Art, EH Gombrich tells how western art took off when the ancient Greeks learned how to show movement, that the perspective was discovered in 15th-century Europe, and that the communication of sensation rather than the seen was the gift of the impressionists. Gombrich had probably not seen much cave art. Lascaux, a series of caves in the French Dordogne, was a recent discovery when he published his book in 1950 – and Chauvet, also in France, wouldn’t be found until 1994.

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