Locked in Gilbert's cave

Gilbert led us into the hill, slammed the door shut behind us and locked it. It was his hill, his cave, and from now on he was in charge.

We stood uncomfortably, seeing nothing, hearing only the drip drip of water splashing around us. After a few moments, Gilbert switched on his torch and, speaking in his thick regional accent, he led us deep into the bowels of the Dordogne.

I have visited many caves in the Dordogne. I love prehistoric art. I love the non-verbal communication between ourselves and people who lived fifteen, twenty, twenty-five thousand years ago. To enter a cave and see the world though the eyes of a distant human past is like entering a time machine.

They have a camera obscura on a hill in Bristol, near the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Having queued outside the observatory, you enter a darkened room where, thanks to a convex lens and a sloping mirror you can see the park you just walked through projected onto a large table.

Unless, something dramatic happens outside, an attack on the city of Bristol by a flying army of mutant bearded luminous washing machines for example, the view on the table isn’t exactly riveting but remember that this was built in the 1820s, around seventy years before the advent of cinema. Aside from gathering around the piano or gasping with excitement at the newly invented toy balloon, entertainment was hard to come by.

Cave paintings are the camera obscura of prehistory. Standing in the dark we see the world through the eyes of our relatives from tens of thousands of years ago.

Gilbert swaggered through his subterranean kingdom with us following in his wake like pilot fish tagging along beside a great white shark. He knew we would follow him to the ends of the earth because not to follow him was to be left in total darkness with only dripping water for company. We were also happy to follow his small torch beam because we had learned that the prehistoric art of cave painting is best enjoyed by viewing it with a single light source; a torch or a candle.

The artists who painted in Lascaux, or Font de Gaume, Pech Merle, or Gilbert’s cave were not only fantastic draughtsmen (or draughtswomen, we have no idea) with a fantastic sense of line and form, they also loved to exploit the three dimensional surfaces of the caves. Animals are painted so that their bellies coincide with the natural curve of a rock, for example. As a torch or candle sweeps the surface of a painting it causes shadows to dance across the rock, exposing the depth of the image. A deer’s head or antlers seem to move, its ears prick back as if it has heard us. The horse’s belly swells, becomes rounder.

There are those who want us to believe that prehistoric people painted in caves as part of a magic system designed to bring them success in their hunting. Maybe. The truth is that nobody can possibly know. I studied African art at university and heard similar explanations for the art of Africa. I was taught that the carvings of the Lega people of the Congo were purely functional and not artistic. The proof, I was told, was the fact that when colonialists stole ivory carvings from them, the Lega replaced the missing items with light bulbs. The carvings were simply a device linked to a learning system and had no artisti value in themselves, it was argued.

Hesitantly, I pointed out to the professor that the shape of the carvings that had been stolen and the shape of the light bulbs that replaced them were remarkably similar. Could it be that, far from lacking an aesthetic sense, and tired of having their carvings stolen every time they made them, the Lega had found a practical solution that satisfied the aesthetic requirement of art while using an object that the colonialists would not want to steal? Could it be that we in the West were so used to thinking of light bulbs as practical objects that we were failing to see the beauty in their physical form?

Why do we seek to suggest that some people are primitive and others are not? Why don’t we want to believe that cave people painted because they loved to paint or because they saw beauty in the world around them and wanted to capture it and show it to others, just as we do? Maybe they used their art as a form of trade, receiving goods or services in return for showing their fantastic paintings. We will never know, of course. It is amazing enough to see their handprints and to feel their humanity across the millenia.

The cave scene in we are POD springs from my life time love of prehistoric art and the cryptic and fragmented message they bring us from our ancient ancestors. The scene also draws on the real discovery of the Cosquer Cave in the South of France where, uniquely, ancient paintings of jellyfish and penguins are found among the stalactites and stalgmites.

By the time Gilbert unlocked the door and let us step out into the summer sunshine, and a temperature rise of nearly twenty degrees, an hour had passed. During that hour the damp air, the dancing shadows, and the art of people who lived and breathed five hundred generations before us had soaked into our bones. I wonder what they would have made of the locked door and of the fact that - in an impossible future of mobile phones, cars, ready meals and the Eurovision Song Contest - we can, through their remarkable paintings, still see the world as they saw it.