Following is an excerpt from a fascinating interview in The Paris Review Daily blog (linked to here), by Paris Review Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, with German director Werner Herzog, whose most recent film, the 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is about La Grotte Chauvet, a cave in the south of France discovered in the mid-nineties that contains exquisite animal paintings that are more than thirty thousand years old (by comparison, the Lascaux cave paintings are 17-18,000 years old); and archaeologist and Neanderthal expert Jan Simek, who conducts research on sites, in middle Tennessee, discovered to contain an elaborate prehistoric cave art tradition.
John Jeremiah Sullivan: That leads to something else you remarked on, Dr. Simek, about the new film, which is the subtle attention paid to place, to the immediate landscape around the cave. I know that in the case [of] the North American sites, you’re finding that they must be understood within the context of the landscape — the land itself was seen as a fabric charged with mythological power, and the caves have a place in that.***
Jan Simek: I was noticing the Pont d’Arc, the famous natural stone bridge over the Ardèche. (We have these “natural bridges” here in Tennessee, too.) A lot of Herzog’s interviews with scientists were done in front of the arch; they’re standing in front of it.
Werner Herzog: The remark is not far-fetched. There’s evidence of six or seven caves in the immediate vicinity of the Pont d’Arc. And the bridge really does appear, as I remark in the film’s commentary, like a staging out of a Wagner opera. Apparently this romantic sense of landscape does not belong to the Romanticists alone. It is something that is embedded in our modern soul. It’s apparently in the modern human souls of Paleolithic people as well.
the Pont d'Arc, a large natural land bridge carved out by the Ardèche River in southern France (from The Paris Review Daily (link here);
The Voyage of Life: Manhood, oil on canvas (1840), Thomas Cole, American, born England (1801-1848), Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York
Jan Simek recording prehistoric art high on a cliff overlooking the Tennessee River (photo by Alan Cressler, from flickerstream linked to here)
Werner Herzog (image from Cave of the Forgotten Dreams)