Monday 2 May 2022

Picture Post #74 The Swimmers

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Martin Cohen

La Grotte des Nageurs
OK this is not exactly about the image, as much as the context. But then, that’s often what we end up talking most about here at Pi with our Picture Post series. ‘La Grotte des Nageurs’, or ancient cave of the swimmers, contains these unmistakable image of people swimming.  It was discovered in Egypt, near the border with Libya,  in 1933 and immediately caused much bafflement as it was located in one of the world’s least swimmable areas. Could it be that, say ten thousand years earlier, the Sahara had been a bit more like the seaside?

Seriously, it is thought that at this time, the area was indeed very different, a humid savanna replete with all sorts of wild animals, including gazelles, lions, gireaffes and elephants!

But back to the humans, and what I like about this picture is the way it conveys that curious lightness of being that can only be obtained by plunging into water while maybe holding something like a float, or catching a current. It’s a simple painting, by any standard, yet a curiously precise and delicate one.

The Grotte was portrayed in the novel The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and in a film adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas – and the two diminuitive swimming figures.


Keith said...

As to the ‘context’ of art in prehistoric caves, a good example is Grotte des Merveilles (Cave of Wonders), which I visited in Rocamadour, France, a few years ago. Its iconic wall art — animals and outlines of human hands — is estimated to date back some 25,000 years.

Although the more famous Lascaux Cave is spectacular in its own way, with many more cases of wall art, for decades visitors have been confined to just a replica, whereas the Cave of Wonders (like the Cave of Swimmers) is the original. There’s something personally evocative and spine-tingling about ‘original’ versus ‘replica’.

Besides the expressive nature of the art in the Cave of Wonders, we’re left with gnawing curiosity about how sophisticated everyday language might have been for the people living at that time — their vocabulary, their syntax, their meanings both real and mythological. And about how far they cast their gaze around the surrounding order of things, from the cave to the cosmos, for which they needed language to express themselves within families and social, survivalist groups.

Martin Cohen said...

As to the issue of offering replica cave art, Keith, I totally agree. The whole point of art is it should be the real thing - otherwise we can look at it in a book (if anyone remembers those old fashioned things…). But the other thing that struck me is that art like this belongs in a particular place. If you see a picture in a cave, part of the mystery and power is knowing that ten thousand years ago someone else was in that space - painting…

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

This post called to mind Foe, by J.M. Coetzee, in which a woman tries to understand a dervish -- to the extent of putting on his clothes and imitating his behaviour. But it is beyond her. I suspect, too, that such images as these are beyond us. They come from another time and place, into which we cannot think ourselves.

Martin Cohen said...

That's an issue to consider, certainly, Thomas. But for me the magic of the image is how it indicates something we had in common with those ancient ancestors…

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