Off the Walls: Cave Art, Reimagined

DAN COURTICE/Sémitour Périgord

Why the world needs a perfect replica of France’s Lascaux caves.

At the crux of our fascination with the cave art of Lascaux is the tale of how it was found. In 1940, four French teenagers scampered down a hole beneath the roots of a fallen tree and were enveloped in a herd of ancient aurochs, horses, and ibex: tunnels teeming with richly colored, 18,000-year-old images as pristine as if they had been created the day before.

Seventy-seven years later, on a nearby hillside outside the village of Montignac, visitors to the International Cave Art Centre (“Lascaux 4”) can experience that discovery for themselves. Crafted via laser imaging, digital photography, and 3-D printing, full-scale reproductions capture every last peculiar image and symbol. The copy even re-creates the cave’s original musty climate. As director of operations Guillaume Colombo proudly observes, visitors enter at a knowing remove but leave in a state of reverie.

This isn’t the first Lascaux replica. Twenty years after the CO2 of a million awed exclamations threatened the originals and forced the cave’s closure in 1963, Lascaux 2, a partial reproduction, opened nearby. Lascaux 3 is another facsimile that travels the world. But only Lascaux 4 places the site in a broader context. Beyond the “cave,” high-tech interactive galleries probe the limits of our understanding of cave art and spotlight surprising links with contemporary art. “The questions asked then are the same today,” Colombo marvels, “about religion, about science, about the place we occupy on the earth.” Eighteen millennia later, the mystery of life—like the mystery of Lascaux itself—endures.