10/12/2010 05:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Werner Herzog's Unforgotten Dreams: Illuminating the Cave Paintings at Chauvet

The first images, released in 1994, of the Chauvet Cave paintings located in southern France, ignited the world's curiosity, mine included. What would it be like to be in the cave with the art, what kind of power must it emit? It's likely that none of us, nor anyone we personally know, will ever enter the cave.

One artist, whose work I greatly admire, was granted permission to enter the cave: filmmaker Werner Herzog. In his film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he reports back from the front.


Image courtesy of Werner Herzog Film GmbH

In a scarcely advertised screening last month at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, California, I saw the 2D version of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is scheduled for release next year as a 3D film. As I understand it, the film needed to be screened for one week, on at least one screen, before the end of the year to be eligible for Oscar consideration. There were literally six people in the audience at the screening. Six!

Herzog allowed us to see the mechanics behind the making of the film. How could he not since the space, movement and time limitations were nearly unworkable in terms of filmmaking. He had shot but four hours a day, for six days only, with the restriction of filming from a two foot wide, specially constructed pathway that meanders through the cave.


Image courtesy of Werner Herzog Film GmbH

In true Herzog fashion, the film caresses the images on the cave walls with brooding music as well as his distinct visually poetry -- for example, long, slow, careful shots of the Cave of the Lions -- images I'd never seen before since the horse images were often the ones most publicized.


Public domain image retrieved from New World Encyclopedia

As perhaps only Herzog can do, the film takes us back to the origins of that time and space. He takes us to a place of wonder, silent wonder and raw illumination. The flat, low temperature lighting that was permitted for the shoot gives us a clear sense of the torch, the lighting used in the creation of these graphic enigmas. How can one watch a film like this and not be in awe of such a find, while these images are so well preserved and fresh that in person they are said to appear fake, because of their un-aged quality?


Public domain image retrieved from New World Encyclopedia

The cave paintings at Chauvet seem to be part of the original human narrative. Some think we have progressed little since that time, 30,000 years ago. As an artist, I fantasize about what the people who painted in the caves at Chauvet wanted to communicate and what those depictions meant to them. It's thought that the people who painted the images were not artists at all, but rather the shamans of the tribe. It's also believed that the shamans were the artists of the time and vice versa.

Certainly the impulse to make images, by whatever means, proves to be a deep part of the human psyche. It makes me realize how unimportant the career aspect of being an artist should be, but of course this is a very different time. Despite the time, space or circumstances it seems somebody has got to make art. How lucky I feel to be one of those people.

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