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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?


Karen said...

This is probably a far off thought, but your post makes me think that man, himself, is a copy - in an image not his own. For my part, I'll take the base copy, the reflection of greatness it holds. If I never see the original, I have an inkling of it beauty - and that's better than nothing.

PurestGreen said...

What a fascinating post. I am inclined to say yes to the copy over nothing - just be able to stand there and grapple with the spirit of the thing, and the motivation of those who made the original. A copy, in this case, could be seen as art's version of empathy.

ladytruth said...

It is such a hard topic to debate sometimes. We have a similar issue in our Afrikaans literature in the form of a very famous author passing away; she had several unfinished manuscripts that her family now tried to finish and publish under her name. "Unfinished" in the sense that it has not gone through the whole editing process yet. Now: is it better to have an unfinished work or no work of hers at all?

I just stick to reading what books I do have or her and couldn't bring myself to buying the "new" ones.

steven said...

hi david, what a fascinating post! thanks for being the touchpoint for some really cool thinking. there's a parallel in music. the original performance sometimes invokes something beyond itself - a quality of magic that can't be contained in the reproduced form. similarly, there is something magic and real in an original piece of art, writing, dance, theatre that as you say, can't hope to be contained in a copy. i'll probably step on lots of toes here but original anything doesn't last. it's the nature of the beast. a digital record is better than nothing at all - it at least provides a place to jump off. have a thoughtful day. steven

The Weaver of Grass said...

Gosh Dave - what a poser for an idle Sunday afternoon. My brain had gone into neutral when I switched on - now you are asking me to give an opinion on what must be one of the world's great conundrums.
I love the Lascaux cave paintings. My late husband did a series of copies of fragments of them - and i love these too. I can enjoy them for what they are - copies. But nothing can replicate the thrill of standing before the real thing. When we found our neolithic axe head on our land, when the farmer actually picked it up, he was more or less certain that his was the first hand which had held it since Neolithic man. Now it has been handled by various people, that feeling has completely gone. I think I can transfer that idea to Lascaux and say that when they are gone, they are gone for ever. However, then a feeling creeps in which says - but a copy is better than nothing. Very interesting post. Thank you for it.

NanU said...

I firmly believe that Lascaux II should continue to exist. I've visited a few times now, and the experience is awe-inspiring. It is tragic that the original paintings are disappearing. But that is in no way a reason to deprive generations to come of the wonderful experience (artistic, spiritual, anthropological...) of the reproduced rooms. No, it isn't quite the sensation of the original. Nobody pretends it is. The thinking that if a privileged few can't view the real cave, then nobody can view anything at all, is pretty empty. It would be destroying a record of history. The original is going: so be it (alas). Closing the copy is cutting your head off to spite your nose.

Meri said...

So should we give the books of the Bible the old heave-ho, as they're copies of copies of copies that were translated, edited, revised?

Carl said...

Hi Dave -

I am with Meri on this. We keep the copy. Knowing full well it is a copy there are still things that can be learned. Any connection to the distant past is better than nothing.


Mark Kerstetter said...

I agree with steven - nothing original lasts. It is likely that the Lascaux paintings themselves are not the first of their kind, but the result of a long tradition.

These questions are essential to us at this time. One of the key features of contemporary art (the primary one, according to some) is copying itself. It defines much of what we, as artists, do, and yet the questions you raise here so clearly point to the loss that occurs in copying, like a digital photo that loses resonance with every replication. And so an important dimension here is wondering, again, just what those ancient artists were really doing. Such questions might help us appreciate the present tense, the ephemeral, being that much more. This is a great post!

Friko said...

Hi Dave, a question without an answer. Or as many answers as there are opinions.
My immediate reaction is of dismay that yet another of the greatest works mankind has produced is to disappear for good, and thus deprive future generations of appreciating the fulness of man's creativity.
But because of that, perhaps, I feel that a replica is better than nothing. We have nothing but descriptions of ancient wonders of the world,or, at best, artists' impressions of what these descriptions conveyed to them.

So, let me at least look upon the replica and try to imagine the glory of the original.
My husband is amongst the lucky ones who saw Lascaux I.

gleaner said...

Hmmm, lots to think about and I was only just listening to a similar topic on the literary trends (the recent lawsuit regarding some-one writing a sequel to J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye) and issues regarding copying, recreating, altering, shortening, etc...Although these paintings are an absolute wonder and treasure, is this incessant need to replicate man's inability to accept death - are we genetically programmed for it? I have no answer - I think much of it though hits our creative core and we are forever and have always created with some need to replicate something, whether it be emotion, feeling etc...

Rosaria Williams said...

Yes! If at all possible, reproductions, like translations, allow more people to see and appreciate the work. Is it as good as the original? That' not the issue. It is a copy that will last longer. WE are experiencing Homer's works in print and in translation. We saved the words by printing them. We save the picture, by reproducing it.

readingsully2 said...

To me it is almost like the old question of is there a noise in the woods when a large tree limb falls to the ground if there is no one there to hear it?

For me the answer is yes. The fact that no one hears it does not mean the sound never happened.

Of course copies and translated literature is better than not even knowing. How else could it be?

Make a copy of the the Last Supper. It has already been done wtih photography. Thank God for photography. Can you imagine what we would be missing without it?

readingsully2 said...

And I might add...Thank God for talented artists as well.

Eryl said...

Are the 'purists' suggesting that once the original disappears the copy should be actively destroyed? Do they believe that having the copy without the original is somehow harmful? I don't understand.

The copy is now part of our history, whether we like it or not, it will fade of its own accord one day too, but for now it is an artefact that tells something about the time and people who made it, even if it tells us bugger all about the original.

Mariana Soffer said...

Very interesting post david
Let me tell you a story about cave paintings.
My brother in law was an antropologist in the north of my country, so we went there with all
the familly to stend new years eve and santa claus holliday.
Axel the antropologist started talking to an old woman that is in charge of feeding some
goats. She told axel that something strange happend to her, cause when she arrive to a hughe stone
where she planned to rest she started seing cartoons that where watching at her. So axel realized that
what this woman saw where rupestre paintings that where very old and undiscovered till the moment.
We organized an expedition with lamas, photographic equipment, food, all. So we travel on foot for a day to arrive to the place, efectivelly there where the oldest rupestre paintings ever seen from that scivilization. We documented everything, and axel editit a book with the hole thing.
IT was one of the best experiences I ever went trough in my life.

Jeanne Estridge said...

What a thought-provoking post.

Mostly I think a glimmer of greatness is better than none, but even as I write that, I have this nagging sense that I don't believe that 100%, that there are exceptions that occur when, perhaps, the motive for the copy is less pure, more sinister....

No idea where I'm going with that, but it's there, under the surface....

NanU said...

I very much hope that a good replica of the Last Supper will be made before the original is gone; and that it will be painted, using pigments, techniques and materials as close to the original as possible. I haven't been lucky enough to see the original, and while photographs can give one an idea of what the work is like, there's nothing that can replace being there, up close and personal, to take in the feeling, the textures. It's in this was we experience a work, instead of just knowing about it. A work as important as Da Vinci's Last Supper I hope will be reproduced in paint so that others may appreciate it in a way that photography cannot give us access to.
Many of these comments mention how thought-provoking the issue is, but not a single one suggests closing Lascaux II.

Dave King said...

It's a very far off thought, but I like it - I like far off thoughts. I think you're saying that if it's worthwhile in its own right, keep it! I agree.

Hi, welcome and thanks. Your last sentence appeals to me very much indeed.

Unfinished in that sense, I'd take it every time, but I see it might be different for a fan.

Yes, I take the points you make there. In the case of Lascaux part of the magic is that we are (were) looking at art worl done all those ages back by people that we are apt to think of as primitive. That magic must be lost in translation - and it seems that for some that is the magic that matters.

The Weaver of Grass
You remind me of the time when I found a flint axe on a geography field trip. There was real magic in the romance of its age and how it had come to be where I found it, but as in your example, frequent handling dimmed the feelings.

Science Girl
The thinking that if a privileged few can't view the real cave, then nobody can view anything at all, is pretty empty. hanks for that, that seems to sum it up nicely.

No, but some might argue that the books of the Bible do not depend upon their status as works of art to justify their survival. (I agree with your conclusion, though.)


Your questions take the discussion to a new and even more fascinating level, I think. Thanks for that.

My first reaction, reading of the sad state of the paintings was exactly as you have expressed your own. I agree with your conclusion and am very envious of your husband!

Interesting points you raise there for me personally: when I first began to draw and paint seiously I had a habit of thickening and/or darkening the outlines to the point where I would lose much of the life and subtlety that I had to begin with. I knew at the time that what was almost an obsession was related to my fears of impermanence.

Thanks for that. There does seem to be more unanimity in blogland than outside it!

Sorry, don't agree. The tree falling in the wood does not make anoise. It sets up air waves, that's all. The waves are only translated into noise within the brain.

As for the Last Supper, yes there are photographic copies, but not actual-size ones, I think, intended to give the same experience as standing before the original. I agree with your conclusions.

Absolutely agree - and yes, I think the purists are suggesting exactly that. Presumably that the copy will give future generations a wrong image of the paintings (due to the discrepancies between the two that I mentioned.) Thanks for the comment.

What a fantastic story, Mariana! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Fabulous!

But yes, I think I do get a "glimmer" of what you are driving at. Many thanks. i will give it some thought.

I appreciate what you are saying and agree with it almost entirely, but am just a little worried about the technique and materials bit. It was Leonardo's choice of materials that caused the deterioration, as I said, almost from day 1. But that initself raises an interesting question. Should we try to preserve or "improve"? Wow, there's one for the purists!!

Barry said...

Unlike Science Girl I have never been to Lascaux (I or II) so my experience has been limited to photographic copies with little pretense at offering anything but the most remote hint of the reality of either.

Am I better off for having had even this most remote experience of these works of art.

You betcha for sure Dave! And not just in some faint and tepid way.

Tess Kincaid said...

Interesting food for thought here, as usual, Dave. I would have to agree with many of the commenters before me, in that a copy of the original piece of art is better than nothing at all.

A Cuban In London said...

No to your first question and yes to the second one.

Th cave paintings were not meant to be seen, as you rightly stated. So, as much as it pains us to lose a piece of monumentally archaeological importance it has no artistic merit beyond its production. We, modern humans, are bestowing our artistic interests in the piece.

The Leonardo artwork should be copied if the alternative is to lose it forever. Da Vinci DID intend his art to be seen and appreciated as art. So, it has not just a historical meaning but also an artistic one.

Excellent post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Greetings from London.

Unknown said...

A work of art is an expression of a time and place. If you are not living in the time and place in which the art was created, you have lost most of the magic anyway. Will future generations be more disturbed by the loss of what we consider irreplaceable works of art or by the way we ignored global warming and lost half the species of animals alive during our time and place here? We CAN manage to create a magicless replica- Last Supper 2. What ever do we do about orangutans?

Mary Paquet said...

David, you spend your time in fascinating thought. If not Lascaux II, I would want some record for historical purposes of those wonderful ritualistic paintings. I would be satisfied with paper documentation, but I think it is important not to lose our past, even the part that was not intended for public display. For many people, seeing a tangible reproduction helps them connect with the past. So I would vote not to destroy Lascaux II.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've always been a wee bit puzzled by Man's need to preserve. I look at my flat just now and I don't think I have anything that belonged to me before the age of thirteen. Indeed I will have thrown away more than the flat I'm in currently holds. It has always surprised me how when one of these periodic culls takes place what survives only to get tossed perhaps only a couple of years later. The point I'm making is that things have their time. Decay is a part of existence and I'm not sure why we fight it. That the cave paintings have lasted as long is indeed something but if they're lost tomorrow then they're lost. Calling it a "terrible loss" is just a label we choose to attach to it. It is all the loss it is ever going to be. Perhaps I'm a Philistine but these paintings have been recorded for posterity. They will not be forgotten. Is it so important to have the original? Are the images not more important than the brush strokes?

Dave King said...

I, too, have not had the experience of seeing either Lascaux in situ, so to speak, and so, like yourself, must speak in general terms, but I do find it difficult to conceive how we can be worse off with the copy!

Yes, it's difficult to disagree with te main position. The fascination of the topic for me lies in the side issues that it opens up.

A Cuban in London
Thanks for that. I could not help thinking, as I read your second paragraph, of child art which may or may not have been intended for the eyes of others. Usuallly we make no distinction, but just regard it all as art. Thanks for a very pertinent comment.

A very telling point, I think, made by your second sentence. One that tends to be overlooked.

I agree with you about the wild life and the damage we are doing to the planet. I wonder whether linking the two concepts might make others heed it a little more????

Hi Mary and welcome. Thanks for your contribution. A useful addition to the views, I think.

Part of me - a large part - agrees with your main point. I do think the images more important than the brushstrokes, but I suppose some would say that can only apply to the photographic (2-D) images, for the images of Lascaux II, while more closely recreating the experience, are not as faithful to the originals which depend so heavily on unique topography. I'm not sure that I agree with that, but I think it is the gist of what is being said.

Titus said...

Oh, I'm the old reactionary. Original heart-stopping. Copy of interest, and better than nowt, but that's all.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

A big discussion here! We seem to copy just about everything. Much of the stonework of the Parthenon has been/is being replaced because of corrosion. What makes it any different to a Disney stage set? The wonder is in the original. If we look at a replica of The Last Supper, we can no longer marvel at Da Vinci's talent. I see no purpose in slavishly trying to copy it. Preserve the original for as long as possible, yes. But then show a modern reproduction, even a projected image. I don't say copies are bad just that we can never capture the original and shouldn't try.

Heather said...

What a fascinating and thought provoking post. I think a copy of an original is better than nothing. Many people might be unable to get to see the original - at least seeing a copy would allow them to appreciate it's beauty and the skill of the artist. If making a copy might save the original from disintegration or at least preserve it for a little longer, then surely there is no contest.

Pat said...

I agree with Purest Green. It is so sad to have art vanish without trace.

Conda Douglas said...

I'm all for making as accurate copies as possible with our technology. I'm upset that the originals are disappearing, but on one level, I don't believe art, especially the primal type of art, ever disappears, it's merely transformed.

Dave King said...

Aye, so be it. Nowt wrong with (some) reactionaries!

It just occurred to me reading your post that we are all replacements - in that we've hardly any of the cells we had even a few years ago. Is that any different from replacing the stones in the Parthenon? Copying is another issue, I grant you.

Thanks for that Heather, I think maybe the majority the majority agree with you.

My heart says so, but something whispers that I have to reconcile that with whatever it is in me that goes along with Jim.

Mmm, I think you might be able to say that copying is another form of the transformation process.

Julie Kertesz - me - moi - jk said...

I have been and visited Lascaux (the replica) and was there with someone who in his childhood has been and seen the original one too, until too many tourist come it lasted without problems.

Anyway, the place (replica or not) is stunning and does remind us that art did not begin with Renaissance or new waves! It also gave us the feeling of the people and humanity that does not change so much as we do think and that the 'barbarians' where not so barbarian or simplistic after all.

As of recreating the Last Supper - it has already be done so many times! in so many imitations and so many different places and ways!

So what?

We all learn from each other and from what was before us and leave what we do to those after us to use (and if we are really lucky to remember).

Dave King said...

Thank you for that, Julie. I do envy you having seen Lascaux. It must have been an amazing experience. I think that part of the experience which consists of a certain feeling of connectiveness with the original artists is what my purists treasure to the point of not wanting Lascaux II without Lascaux i.

Lydia said...

Hello Dave. I've gone back and forth on my response to this. As I cannot hone in on my answer I'll simply leave two of my considerations.
1. A piece that was made simply to exist, and perhaps was never created for (m)any human eyes should be allowed to exist in some form, even a copy. But...both caves should be sealed off and never again viewed.

2. A civilization that overpopulates itself and poisons its planet home to the detriment of its art and architecture ...... I'm so disgusted that I'll leave the rest of my comment to crumble.

Anonymous said...

I think Mark K made a great point - the original we are losing is itself likely an imitation of paintings long since lost to time.

We know Lascaux II is a modern copy. We know it is done in an effort to allow future visitors the opportunity to get a hint of the magic the original possesses (soon to be possessed).

I'd rather have the chance to walk into a cave and see the imitation knowing that, though the original succumbed to time, it created such a passion in modern man that the replica was painted to give future generations a sense of the awe it inspired.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Interesting thought provoking post. We are losing so many things that we really should be preserving, tigers for example, should we keep a viable captive population while we let the species die out in the wild? The question occurs over and over and I'm afraid we'll be left a lot poorer for all the creatures that are going to die out, the works of art and ancient sites that are going to be destroyed in the original.

caves of lascaux said...

Very informative post. The complex painted caves of Lascaux are located in the Dordogne region. The awe-inspiring paintings are also described as ‘the antediluvian Sistine Chapel’.1200 visitors daily visit the cave. The initial climatic situation had been re-build and maintained with the assistance of a fully-automated system. The original caves were made in 1980 called as Lascaux II. The Great Hall of the Bulls with its vast-spanning murals comprises of animals like horses, stags and bulls. you can find beautiful art form based on the conventional ancient animal premise inclusive of bison, stag, ibexes.

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