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Sunday, 2 August 2009
Copy that, copycat! Lascaux and all that.
This is another post for which I have to thank something seen in the media. Tom Lubbock has a regular column in The Independent titled Great Works. Last Friday he used it to discuss The Lascaux Cave Paintings, or rather, the Lascaux Paintings and some interesting points relating to the copying of art works. Or rather Lascaux ll and some interesting points relating to the copying of art works.
Let me explain. It is well enough known that these amazing cave paintings were created around 17.000 BC, that they were discovered by three teenagers in 1940 and found to contain over 1,500 separate images. It is also generally known that in the 50's they were found to be suffering rot damage as a result of the continual passage of visitors. In 1963 they were closed to the public. In the eighties two nearby caverns were opened in which had been created actual-size, three-dimensional replicas of the two most important caverns. These were as near perfect as human skill could make them - for they were not copied technologically, not photographically, but painted on to the bare rock surface as the originals had been and using the same materials and techniques. Since then, these are what the visiting public have seen - Lascaux ll, as they are known.
At first, the plan appeared to have worked; the paintings began to recover. But it did not last. They are now deteriorating so rapidly that it is no longer a question of who can be allowed in to see them, Before long there will be nothing to see, they will have ceased to exist. I had not realised that the situation had become that bad.
It is this circumstance that has led Lubbock to a discussion of the issues which I have found so fascinating. He refers to Walter Benjamin's contention that there are two forms of copying: one in which the copies exist only to be viewed - photography and the cinema, for example. That is their raison d'être: to be looked at, for whatever purpose - pleasure, information etc. Not so with the Lascaux paintings. They come into his second category of ritualistic images in which their very existence is all that matters. Of course, what exactly the Lascaux paintings were for has been the subject of speculation since the forties and cannot be finally resolved But the suggestion that seems to have become the current favourite (and seems to me most likely) is that this most fantastic of all installations was not primarily intended to be seen at all. That was not its raison d'être. It probably was visited, might even have been used in rites, including those of passage (as some suggest), but was intended first and foremost for the spirits. Its chief purpose was simply and solely to exist.
But now we are reaching the point where it may no longer exist in any meaningful way, and the interesting question which Lubbock has raised is whether, in the non-existence of Lascaux I (if I can so term it) we would be better or worse off having Lascaux II. Would it be preferable to have only Lascaux II or to have nothing? There is a sizeable body of purists (my term) who think it would be preferable to have neither. I have never been a purist and my instinct was mentally to vote accordingly, but then I thought again... and thought I saw what they were driving at. Lascaux II is not an exact copy. It couldn't be. As I have pointed out, it is not a reproduction from a flat surface to a flat surface.. One of the special wonders of the original (Lascaux I)paintings is the way in which those early artists utilised individual rock formations, turning them into features of the creature to be represented or using them to emphasise such features. Magical touches like that cannot be copied, if only because each rock form is unique.
So the question remains: when (sadly, not "if") we are left with no Lascaux I, will we then be better off having or not having Lascaux II? Here is a parallel (or parable, should you prefer) that occurs to me. A manuscript is unearthed of a previously unknown long poem. It is obviously a work of major importance and (quite obviously) the only copy extant. But intense research shows it to be a translation. The only copy of the original in the original tongue, scholars learn, was lost. It is the translation or nothing that the world has been bequeathed. You are ahead of me, I know: Is the world worse or better off for having this translation? Or maybe neither better nor worse off, for what it has is not the original poem but something else?
Lubbock takes this absorbing conundrum one step further by pointing out that ever since the day that it was finished - and possibly before that - Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper has been deteriorating and threatening to finally disintegrate in a shower of scurf-like fragments. Nothing more can be done to stabilise or in any way save it. Should they create a Last Supper II?