Fotograf Magazine

Modes of Seeing, Modes of Figuration

Philippe Descola

The controversies regarding the meaning of prehistoric cave paintings show sufficiently that even if its subject is fully recognizable, an image itself is not immediately transparent. This mammoth surrounded by humans – is it a scene from a hunting story painted by the narrator to illustrate his narrative? Or is it a sequence from a forever forgotten myth referring to the times when humans and animals were still on good terms? Is it an element of a ritual practice aimed at bringing a good catch? Is it a glorification of an animal that was thought to have brought forth one human group? No one can say for sure and it is risky to try to guess an answer by making analogies with what we know about the paintings made by present-day hunting populations living in Australia or in the Kalahari, so vast is the temporal distance separating them from the painters of Lascaux and the Chauvet Cave. Images don’t speak for themselves, either because it is impossible, due to the cultural gap, to know the effects that their authors sought to have on their intended audience, or because this knowledge dissolves in time within the given iconological tradition which is easily verifiable by visiting a medieval section in any of our museums.

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#28 cultura / natura