"It's almost too beautiful," said the first scientist to descend into the Lascaux caves, according to "Scenes From the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux," an important and highly engaging new exhibit at the Field Museum.
Hundreds of paintings of animals — and just one human — adorned the white calcite walls of what has since been billed the "Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art." Some showed an ability to draw perspective that experts thought hadn't fully developed until the Renaissance.
The local schoolmaster, led there by the teenage boys who had discovered the caves in southwestern France, thought they might be tricking him. With his skepticism shattered, his first reaction was simply to swear in wonder, according to "The Cave Painters," a book by Gregory Curtis about Lascaux and other ancient art sites that's on sale in the gift shop through which you leave the show.
Science would eventually date the drawings to about 19,000 years ago, toward the end of the Stone Age, and attribute them to Cro-Magnons, who were, in essence, us: homo sapiens, but with kitchen tools from rock and bone rather than Crate & Barrel.
The boy discoverers didn't know any of that in September 1940, but they knew the drawings looked prehistoric and that they were surely valuable. When Robot, a dog belonging to one of them, started scratching at a covered-over entrance to the cave system, they had been seeking riches rumored to have been hidden in lost caverns by a wealthy family. They found a better treasure.
Since then, the Cave Paintings of Lascaux have become themselves a tableau for varying stages of human cultural competence. They were abused as a tourist attraction in the early years, and much valuable archaeological evidence is believed to have been lost.
To protect the paintings, the French government stepped in and shut the caves to the public in 1963, after more than a million people had visited. In 1983, the government opened in a nearby quarry a smaller but reportedly impressive replica for tourists, known as "Lascaux II."
And now comes the museum exhibition, billed as "Lascaux III" by the French government representative on hand at Tuesday's premiere event. The show opens to the public Wednesday.
Researchers can visit Lascaux, which is reportedly fighting mold issues. Visitors to France's Dordogne region can see Lascaux II. Any Chicagoan with bus and museum fare can see Lascaux III, making its North American debut at the Field.
The show's centerpiece is a series of life-size replicas of some of the most important of the artworks, which have been named according to their animals: "The Frieze of the Stags," "The Panel of the Crossed Bison," "The Panel of the Black Cow" and so on. They are done on thin sheets of fiberglass, museum staffers said, but the contours of the faux rock wall are realistic, and the cave paintings seem especially so.
The claustrophobic feeling of being in a real cave is so visceral and distinctive that no museum show will ever get it right, but the exhibition's artificial cavern, with dim light and big wooden beams that might simulate bracing of the rock walls, gives it a first-rate try.
The air of mystery about Lascaux makes the images even richer, and benches helpfully give you place to sit and think about it all, a rarity in museum shows. Scholars still debate whether these paintings, carefully planned and purposeful in line and color, were religious, celebratory of past hunting success, hopeful for future hunting success or something else. The meaning of the abstract symbols found on the walls is not known either.
And although there are aurochs (cow ancestors), horses, ibexes and bison, none of the 600 animals shown is a reindeer, the people's primary source of meat.
No human skeletons were found in the caves, although Curtis notes that the boys found the bones of a donkey, which locals said fell in earlier in the 20th century, when farmers knew there was a dangerous hole but not that it contained anything of value.
Amid the reproduced cave walls are lifelike sculptures of four Cro-Magnons: a man, woman, boy and girl, dressed according to science's best knowledge.
Having them hanging out there doesn't seem to fit easily with the belief that the caves might have been a place of ritual, but it's still informative to think about who made these paintings and to see their resemblance to modern humans (the man, frankly, has a Gerard Depardieu air to him).
"What it shows us is the level of artwork, and everything it implies about society, was already there about 18,000 years ago, with the difference that these people didn't live in settled communities," said Bob Martin, the Field's curator of biological anthropology. "It's somewhat surprising that they were able to reach that level of sophistication without living in villages."
But these cave walls wouldn't work nearly so well without the superb preparation done by the start of the exhibit, which was created by the General Council of Dordogne, the French governmental department that is home to the caves, and first shown last fall in Bordeaux.
In the first full room is a reproduction of the cave system, at one-tenth scale. You see not only the shape and extent of it, almost 300 feet wide, with six main galleries as much as 40 feet underground, but also which drawings were located where.
Wisely, it doesn't neglect the discovery and early exhibition story of Lascaux. Looking at the photos of the cave founders and of the site shortly after discovery, visitors can engage in more contemporary anthropology, along with stepping back into the Upper Paleolithic Era.
A second room tells how the cave paintings have been copied and chronicled through the years, and of the scientists who have devoted decades to studying them. Even if regular people can no longer enter Lascaux, images of what's there are plentiful.
Videos in the exhibition show reproductions of Cro-Magnon life and detail of how the paintings were done, likely on ladders and by the light of "grease lamps," which burned animal fat. Actual tools are on hand, too, of course.
The Field, as is typical, has added material to this show from its own collection. The main augmentation is one of its great treasures, Martin said, the skeleton of Magdalenian Woman, a roughly 30-year-old from about 14,000 years ago, discovered near a rock drawing at Cap Blanc, about 20 miles from the Lascaux site.
Along with her bones, the Field used three-dimensional imaging and Elisabeth Daynes, the French sculptor who crafted the show's Cro-Magnon foursome, to re-create and flesh out the Magdalenian Woman's skull, prominent cheekbones and all.
What her life and thoughts, her personality and hardships might have been like is another area to ponder in this show, which artfully answers those questions it can but is also happy to leave you thinking about the ones that aren't answered.
"That's my favorite part about Lascaux, that we don't know everything yet," said Anna Altschwager, the Field's exhibition project manager. "We keep digging, and we keep searching, which is such a human thing to do."