This past March, I visited the cave of El Castillo, a prehistoric cave in northern Spain containing Paleolithic art dating as far back as 39,000 years. There were paintings of deer, bison, aurochs and ibex, but it was the “Corner of the Tectiforms” that beguiled me. No pictures are permitted to preserve the integrity of the work, but the book Discover Prehistoric Cave Art in Cantabria by Daniel Garrido and Marcos Garcia Diez has a photograph I have gazed upon alot. What fascinated me is that I was (and am) always seeing something new, such as how all of the tectiforms are painted below the natural crevice in the cave wall. The one above is essentially depicted by negative space and in my opinion could well suggest a metaphorical burial ground. Also the dots never go inside a tectiform. Rather a single lightly painted row of dots almost meets the edge of the first vertical tectiform and then appear on the “roof” to bounce into an explosion of dots which just abuts Tectiform 4 but never enters.
I believe these forms and dots were purposely placed in this niche in the cave because the artist wanted/needed to tell a story. The collective unconscious of early hominids was developing on a parallel track as they were learning how to make tools. How could it not? Scientists know that the concept of abstract thought can be dated back to the action of burying the dead. The issue as to whether Neanderthals were “capable” of such “sophisticated” thinking continues to be lively debated in the anthropology field. My theory is by 39 kya the humans, be they Neanderthals or Homo Sapiens, sat around a fire and told stories to try to make sense of death. Why would they be less mystified than us? It would follow that an artist would paint the story. This mural panel could well be telling a narrative.
My research could not confirm if this part of the cave was painted by many people at different times or one artist, and if one artist, whether it was a man or a woman. I believe it was a woman. There is no reason to assume it was a man.
On the mural wall, I detected 7 distinct tectiforms. I have since seen more that I had earlier missed.
They are elongated misshapen rectangles, usually with at least one line that runs as a slight curve thus distorting the pure rectangular form. Almost always they are subdivided into thirds. The lines are painted beautifully, ranging from fragility to intensity to sleek to pregnant. Sometimes the lines are painted vertically or horizontally along the inner edge of the shape to created a stripe effect. One of the tectiforms looks like a boat floating on the sea and other like portals. Archaeologists have suggested they represent boats, roofs, dwellings.
There are also dots and circles in rows that eventually mutate to short marks. At some points they crowd in and push up against each other, bouncing off, and exploding out from the tectiforms, but they never enter the tectiforms. I noticed above one of the crevices in the cave wall that serves to bisect the painting into an upper and lower portion, an irregular rectangle comprised of four rows of dots, in which the center was left open. The negative space, which feels very deliberately painted, brings to mind a burial ground or a tectiform or a female body.
The artist was a master. She was cognizant of the surface of the cave wall and utilized it to extend a line or separate a space. She understood space and movement and had complete control of the mural.
As a work of pure abstract art I find this mural panel relentlessly engaging and so I tried to channel the energy I saw and felt into a series of mixed media paintings using only red pigment, whether pencil, pastel, or paint, to honor the red oxide palette of the past.