Venus Underground

The Chauvet Caves in southern France contain the oldest known image of a woman, in cave paintings over 30,000 years old. Eleri Fowler explores the political and artistic reaction to these images. Illustration by Peony Gent.

A serendipitous rock-fall rendered the pre-historic contents of the Chauvet cave in Southern France impervious to the ravages of history, leaving them hung in temporal suspension. After a brief period in 1994 when the cave was discovered by three explorers it was promptly re-sealed with steely hermeticity. We are left with: “a time capsule… a sounding into the deepest recesses of the time when the human soul awakened.” Why? Because the walls of the cave are decorated with the oldest paintings in the world: the nascent etchings of artistic expression.

There is one human image in the cave, a single depiction of our human ancestors who left their traces at Chauvet. It is a picture of the lower half of a woman’s body. The image already has a mystery about it; it’s located behind a rock pendant in the nethermost cavern and to reach it you have to weave between gangly calcified formations that glitter like lumps of sugar. However, what makes it most mysterious is that we don’t know how to interpret it.

We can see how naming is one attempt at smoothing out the aberration of the mysterious image. Calling the drawing, ‘The Venus and the sorcerer’, tethers it to the deluge of portrayals of Venus throughout art history. In other words it makes the image into a familiar ‘nude’ of the European art tradition. Unlike the Chauvet drawing, a ‘nude’ is easy to interpret. It has been posited that there is a linguistic distinction between the words ‘naked’ and ‘nude’ for a reason. To be ‘naked’ is simply to be not wearing clothes, maybe a bit chilly, but totally (overwhelmingly!) yourself.  But for your image to be rendered as a ‘nude’ is to be distilled into a symbol which, in our culture, has acquired a very clear set of meanings. It’s to do with enforcing patriarchal domination through the instrument of sex (or rather the lusty gaze that presumes sex) woman as object to be looked at and man as subject who possesses the gaze and the power.

But the image in the caves is totally different to, for example, the Aphrodite (another name for Venus) of Knidos. This is the first Classical sculpture of a female nude, the sapling from which centuries of Western art conventions blossomed. 

The reason is wrapped up in the idea of display. Aphrodite is dangling her discarded, rumpled towel from one hand and gently covering herself with the other. Yet that unassuming pose cranks her limbs into a sinuous s-shape and the milky, translucent contours of the marble lead the eye to dance all the way over her body. To put it another way, the experience of looking at this nude depends on an element of voyeurism: the subject is shrinking away but the sculpture is designed to be looked at. 

The situation of Chauvet Venus may seem analogous to the sculpture, but if you think about it it’s the complete opposite. Firstly, the pubic area is totally on display. She’s not hiding anything. Secondly, the image is painted upon the most inscrutable canvas possible: undulating, torch-illuminated surfaces of the caves.

"This opens up an interesting question - what can this prehistoric naked image mean to a modern audience?"

This opens up an interesting question– what can this pre-historic naked image mean to a modern audience? If, as John Berger said “in an average European oil painting of the nude, the principle protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and he is presumed to be a man,” how are we to read the Chauvet picture if cave is locked and impenetrable and there is no audience whose own image the painting reflects back?

This is dramatized by the interesting tableaux which first gave me the idea for this article in Werner Herzog’s documentary about the caves, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  It also adds a further dimension to our investigation into female images: the male gaze in cinema. Just out view of the “mechanical eye” of Herzog’s video camera, we are told, is the Venus. His guide tells him, “there are there are things you won’t be able to show in your film and you won’t be able to see. You can’t get closer… you cannot walk on these grounds. You would destroy the tracks left by the bears and the humans, so you’ll have to make do with this partial image.” A review of the film noted that Herzog is ‘tantalised’ by the painting. As if desperate to complete that partial image and get a glimpse of the promised naked female, Herzog subsequently mounts a quest to the Swabian caves, home of ‘oldest known sculpture’: the ‘Hohle Fels Venus.’

The director remarks about “visual conventions which extend all the way beyond Baywatch,” a proverbial lolling tongue. So a man hears about a pre-historic image of an unclothed female and reads it as a nude, yet the act of seeing it would rewrite the imprints of his forefathers. Surely, this is a metaphor for transplanting our meaning of naked images onto ancient ones?

It’s also worth briefly remarking on the second part of the image’s acquired name: the Sorcerer. To the right of the Venus is half man-half bison. Like Herzog’s Baywatch comments, again we have a trope that is proposed as an instance of continuum across time. That sagacious narrator – Herzog’s guide – says “and here we are some thirty thousand years later with the myth that has endured until our days. We can also find this association of female and boar in Picasso’s drawing of the Minotaur and the woman.” 

However, in Picasso’s images, the minotaur is always depicted supplanting the woman – thus explicitly representing the domination that a ‘nude’ subtlety implies - and the official description of the Chauvet Venus painting notes “even more surprising is the voluntary absence of any super imposition. Neither the Sorcerer nor the large feline on the left cut across the Venus.”

After all, what is so special about the Chauvet Venus is that it carries none of the cultural baggage that Picasso’s art does because it was created before these ideas came about. 

Maybe this search for continuity between our ancestors and ourselves is a bit fruitless? However, there’s one blindingly obvious thing we have yet to mention: a nude may be a symbol but it’s a symbol of a person. What we have in the caves is not a picture of a woman, it is just her reproductive body parts. How are we to interpret an image like this? It corresponds to the faceless statue of Willendorf which Discover magazine described as having “GG-cup breasts and a hippopotamal butt.” New York Times similarly ran the title ‘Precursor to Playboy: Graphic Images in Rock’. So we have seen the Chauvet Venus manifesting as both categories that female images are fractured into: nudes and pornography. Note how both Willendorf and the Chavet image were named ‘Venus’ to cloak our modern pornographic interpretations in the high-brow respectability of European art. These readings say more about our own pre-occupations than those of pre-historic people. 

Furthermore, archaeological research suggest Venus statues may be religious objects or even self-portraits by female artists (the swollen appendages Discover was so fixated on explained by the fact they were created while women were looking downwards at themselves). What can we learn? The cave interests us because it connects us with the first trickle of our humanity - but we must be careful to treat these human creators as people in themselves, and not presume and patronise or impose our own flawed ideological frameworks onto them.