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THE NEGATIVE HAND

Text by Cici Peng
Photography by Jack Jeffreys

In the small town of Montignac-Lascaux, 17,000 years of art history are preserved in the deep, dark of the bedrock. How do we reach back in time?

Lascaux (1)

Les EyziesCountry: France
Area: 37.15 km2
Time zone: GMT +1

A quaint town in southwest France, Montignac’s extensive cave system is typical of the Dordogne region, which features many cliffs formed during the Lower Santonian period 86 million years ago.

Au-dessus de lui les forêts d’Europe, sans fin. Il se tient au centre de la pierre, des couloirs, des voies de pierre de toutes parts.

“Above him the forests of Europe, without end. He stands amidst the rock, corridors, paths of stone everywhere.” These words are from Marguerite Duras’ short film Les mains négatives (1978), inspired by the ghostly handprints left deep inside the Magdalenian Caves of Western Europe by people of the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. Imagine prehistoric “Man”, her footsteps soft against the forest floor, swallows swooping and singing around her.1 She mounts the craggy limestone cliffs, dangling above the earth, her tools between her teeth. She contorts to slide through the rocks, crawling past the opening to discover a cold, unending darkness. But she has brought with her a light, a flickering, shivering fire that casts shadows upon the undulating rocks. She does not lay down her hand for support as she wanders through the dark dampness of the caves. When she has reached where she wants to go, she touches her palm to the wall. She blows pigment against her hand using a small bone pipe, creating a red halo – a negative trace of presence.

1.  Even though Marguerite Duras writes about prehistoric man, it is believed that the majority of the ancient artists were female. Virginia Hugues, “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?”, National Geographic, October 2013.

I went to seek out her handprints 30,000 years later in Les Eyzies, a town in the Dordogne region of southwest France, known as the “world capital of prehistory”. The ironic commercialisation of prehistoric man is everywhere: graffiti replicating the negative hand imprint with spray paint, and little bison replicas on postboxes. Every shop sells postcards that pay homage to the Cro-Magnons, the first early modern humans to settle in Europe – in one, we see a chiselled, oiled topless man flexing his arms against the flowing waters of the Vézère Valley; in another, we see a reimagining of a palaeolithic spanking.

 

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Graffiti on this doorframe collapses 17,000 years of history.

You can imagine why our prehistoric ancestors settled here. The town appears like a miracle, crushed under soaring limestone cliffs which loom like ancient, sleeping gods, solemn in their stillness. A river, fast-flowing, alive and mossy roves through the valley. Medieval homes are carved into cliff walls, rocks merging with their roofs. When you peer closely at the hanging cliffs, they are riddled with peeping holes, medieval artificial chambers cut out in the walls so high you wonder how they got there. The swallows still fall and swoop through these holes. In the cliff walls, you can also find dozens of caves, many of them filled with prehistoric art.

 

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Teeming with lamprey and eels, the Vézère River is popular with local fishermen looking for fish as ancient as the caves it runs alongside.

The caves span the European Upper Palaeolithic Period (from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) and Middle Palaeolithic Period (200,000 to 40,000 years ago). Following a discovery of flint and bone splinters in the area in 1862, a series of excavations were undertaken by French geologist Édouard Lartet and English banker Henry Christy who established Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil as the principal archeological site for the Upper Paleolithic Period.

Font-de-Gaume cave, located a short walk from the centre of Les Eyzies, is one of the only remaining caves with polychrome paintings still open to the public. Although the cave had been known by locals for centuries, Font-de-Gaume’s parietal art was only discovered in 1901 by Denis Peyrony, a local schoolmaster, who found more than 200 images of bisons, reindeers, mammoths, horses, woolly rhinoceroses and a wolf, dating back 17,000 years. The Lascaux Caves, its more famous counterpart for its hundreds of interior wall paintings, were first discovered in 1940 by a group of teenagers who stumbled upon the ancient artwork, and were sealed off in 1963 after mass tourism caused the walls to deteriorate with lichen growth due to the high carbon dioxide levels.

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An imposing cliff face in Les Eyzies.

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When I arrived at the Font-de-Gaume cave, we were ushered up the craggy mountains in a group of 12. Only 200 people are allowed to enter per day in small groups to maintain the optimal conditions to prevent the deterioration of the artwork. Standing outside the caves, you can see two small gated holes in the mountain, a natural seam formed by erosion in the limestone. When we enter, it is dark apart from our tour guide’s torch. “Before, the ground was so high that the Magdalenian would have to crawl in to make their art,” he says. Caves are dark and damp places, hard to reach and inhabitable. Yet, prehistoric artists would scale steep rocky inclines and descend into the centre of the earth in order to create art that would only be seen by an occult few. Everywhere there is evidence of how the natural elements and water formed these spaces over millions of years. The rocks erupt into shapes that appear like skulls, spires, dripping candle wax or jellyfish. Sparkling stalactites and stalagmites jut out as well as columns and bubbles along the walls.

Entering into the darkness, there was nothing to see at first except the slow narrowing of the rock walls. Then, as my eyes focused, I could make out lines coalescing into a large, curved brown body, with tiny legs, a tail, little horns and a small hole engraved in the rock for an eye. “It’s a bison,” our guide says before pointing his torch down the path, to reveal another one, and another, and another. Five bison line the wall. The guide bent his torch in various directions, creating new shadows and perspectives, bringing the bison into view in different motions: as our guide noted, “Illumination is the key to perception.” Their sudden appearance made me jolt – our eyes had been darting around tirelessly for this faint image, then all at once, we were confronted with its entirety. A child on the tour said it was like watching clouds and trying to make out shapes. Except, it’s the artists who did exactly that – they saw the shapes of the animals in the curves of the rock itself, and using a mix of painting, relief and engraving, traced that shape to create their art. “We thought that Renaissance artists discovered perspective, but this shows that it already existed thousands of years ago,” the guide explained. The artists saw in the bends of the rock the hunches of the beasts; they saw galloping legs in the natural wax-like drippings of the wall. As we moved along, the tour guide bent to his knees, pointing to the underbelly of a protruding rock to reveal a little negative hand with charcoal splayed around it.

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The largest painting in the cave is a five-metre-long auroch.

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What will remain thirty thousand years from now?

Across the Lascaux caves in France, Altamira in Spain and Leang Timpuseng in Indonesia, you can see this same tradition of negative hands imprinted on walls, and there’s no way of knowing why or how this tradition arose and travelled. Some say it’s the human instinct to say, “I was there”, others say it was a spiritual invocation to make contact with a netherworld where spirits were thought to dwell. French philosopher George Bataille claims that the paintings had no purpose for the future, but were made in a pure act of creation. My favourite response – not quite an explanation – is Robert MacFarlane’s, in his 2019 book Underland:

I imagine laying my own palm precisely against the outline left by those unknown makers. I imagine, too, feeling a warm hand pressing through from within the cold rock, meeting mine fingertip to fingertip in an open-handed encounter across time.

MacFarlane’s image severs time – the warmth of a touch negates death and solitude itself. Here, we imagine the creation of art not as one of looking, but as an act of touching, of feeling each other’s warmth.

Yet touch always necessitates withdrawal – the push and pull between encounter and loss. When you see the paintings, you can’t help but think of our severance from their makers. Another French philosopher, Jean Luc-Nancy, writes in the essay “Painting in the Grotto” that touch must always be considered alongside distance; if it isn’t, we fail to understand our relationality and otherness to one another.

The hand posed, pressed against the wall, grasps nothing. It is no longer a prehensile hand, but is offered like the form of an impossible or abandoned grasp. A grasp that could as well let go. The grasp of a letting-go: the letting go of form.

The negative hands are predicated on this paradox: only by taking away the hands do we see their imprint. Even then, we don’t see the presence of the hand, but its absence, like a shadow of the self. In many ways, the touch is existential – not the claim, “I am here”, but a recognition of how our relationship to others is based on intermittences of connection and separation.

In Duras’ Les mains négatives, we imagine this shared touch through time. Against a single uninterrupted travelling shot of Paris at dawn, Duras delivers a poetic meditation on the Magdalenian caves. The camera looks through a car window that drives from Bastille to the Champs-Élysées, past Avenue de l'Opéra and Rue de Rivoli. Against this image of Paris, Duras mourns the prehistoric artist. She describes the negative hand as a cry of the sublime – she imagines the awe of the prehistoric artist looking at the immensity of the roaring seas, the endless European woods stretching all around her. Duras embodies this prehistoric Man, closing the literal distance between their bodies by taking on the first person “I” in the film’s narration: “I am the one who called, who cried out, thirty thousand years ago. I love you. I love anyone who will hear my cry.” Duras responds not as an Other, but as an imagined mirroring – in other words, a hand that touches back.

Les Mains Negatives

In a conversation with Jean-Luc Godard the year after Les mains négatives was released, Duras said of her use of text and image: “I need both things, neither of which gets in the way of what I would call ‘the amplitude of speech’. In general, I find that almost all images get in the way of the text. They prevent the text from being heard. And what I want is something that lets the text come through. That’s my only concern.”

Duras’ camera attempts to capture the same sense of touch. At first, the scene is totally dark and we can only hear Duras’ voice describing the negative hands. Then, the dark blue of dusk – streets and buildings illuminated by the passing headlights of cars and the stark white lights of opening shop-fronts. Filmed on 35mm, Les mains négatives depends on light touching the material to create an image. As the car passes by pedestrians, street-sweepers, bin-emptiers, we see their movements like a shadow. The silhouettes of women and their brooms appear like negative images. Duras calls to the paradoxical invisibility of these women (they are all women) – of their work that goes unseen in the city before it wakes while her film leaves a permanent trace of their mark on the city. Slowly, as the car keeps moving, the sunlight touches the film – a touch that brings its people out onto the streets and illuminates the city with life.

This image of Paris from 1978 no longer exists. The streets are different, the cars are different. What will remain thirty thousand years from now? How do we mourn those who leave impermanent traces? One day, these marks in Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume might disappear, eroded by the invisible influence of the air. “The refraction of the light on the sea makes the stone wall tremble,” says Duras in her narration calling to the impermanence of any structure, any mark.

There was one painting in Font-de-Gaume, however, that stayed with me more than any other: it revealed two reindeer together, heads bent, their horns curling beautifully around them in a dazzling mix of charcoal and ochre. One has its tongue stuck out, licking the other reindeer’s forehead. Even now, you can read the care inscribed into that kiss. I hear Duras’ voice echoing once more: “I love whoever will hear my cry.” ◉