Surprise Discovery Of Magdalenian Mega-Art On The Aix Mountain: Majestic Open Secret Of The Lost Civilization
By William Glyn-Jones
Why does the question of civilization's point of origin still burn? We sense that a large chunk of the story is missing, that we are that foundling brought up a pauper in ignorance of his royal heritage: prince Pryderi brought up as a stable hand, Jack in the Green as a chimney- sweep, Daphnis a goatherd. Open up the coffers of our past, we cry, let us have our birthright. And so when we get on the trail of something major that we sense is stalking the prehistoric territories just beyond the borders of the known, it is a massive spur to our curiosity.
Walking the streets of Aix-en-Provence on this sweltering June morning it might seem a little over the top to speak of cultural paucity. Even without the lost civilization, a great richness is apparent. A French market fills a square, natural spring-water gushes from a fountain in the shape of a sanglier, a wild boar, warm breezes waft through the shade of streets lined with late Renaissance sandstone buildings, and cicadas chirp in the trees of walled gardens. Kate is a Picasso fan; I have a certain fascination with Cezanne, so a trip to the Granet Museum to see an exhibition themed on Cezanne's influence on Picasso, and Picasso's idolization of Cezanne, seemed like a good plan. Picasso, drawn by the motif of his hero, a pilgrim drawn to a sacred icon, lived for a while at the foot of Monte Sainte-Victoire, the limestone massif that rises east of Aix, and he is buried there. The estate Picasso bought included part of the mountain.
"I've bought Cezanne's Sainte-Victoire," the Spanish-born painter boasted.
He was asked in reply which one, for Cezanne had painted the mountain many times.
"The real thing," was his proud reply.
The cultural richness of the area is evident as we walk on from the part of the museum devoted to the exhibition and into the part that contains the fine classical paintings of Granet, several of these being portraits of the Aix mountain, Sainte-Victoire, which the artist liked to show framed by an arch, door or window. I notice one among these that is something of a curiosity. Granet painted a Death of Poussin, showing the great French-born, Rome-based master on his death bed. Hanging above the bed on the wall in Granet's painting is an image of one of Poussin's own paintings, thought by many to be a meditation on mortality, The Shepherds of Arcadia II. There is a difference, however. The mountain behind the tomb is raised up higher on the horizon, the reason being, it has been suggested, that this allowed the Aixoise Granet to assert through the more visible leonine profile of the mountain that it is in fact Sainte-Victoire.
Visiting Cezanne's atelier in Aix, his studio kept just as it was, one may observe that he had a print of this same Poussin painting on his wall, The Shepherds of Arcadia II. The theme is Virgil-esque; the Shepherds painting is effectively an updating of an earlier illustration to the Roman poet's pastoral poems, his eclogues. Inspired by the fifth eclogue, Poussin shows Arcadian shepherds who have built a shrine like the one in the poem built to honour the death and ascension into the starry heavens of Daphnis, the ideal shepherd, probably as the ideal shepherd constellation, Bootes, who was identified by some (such as Hyginus) with the legendary ancestor of the Arcadians. (Indeed it has been pointed out that the figure in the Poussin with one foot on a rock references Bootes, who by the 17th century was shown on constellation charts with one foot on a rock that was named after Mainalos, the mountain in Arcadia in southern Greece that is sacred to Pan. The kneeling, pointing, bearded shepherd next to him in the painting confirms this, for he works as the nearby constellation of Hercules, the Kneeling Man.) As a young man Cezanne, though now called the Father of Modern Art, walked the countryside around Aix with friends reading Virgil's eclogues, no doubt conceiving of the Provencal landscape in these classical terms.
And here we have an instance of the way that all the known, the historic civilizations remain haunted by the prehistoric: the Arcadia in question stands for the Old Culture, the Golden Age of herders before bronze and iron weapons, before the Earth was torn by the plough.
We walked on past post-Renaissance classical statues in another hall in the Granet Museum.
"Who's that?" Kate asks, pointing to a maiden whose foot is being bitten by a serpent. I point to the nearby statue of Orpheus and briefly explain the myth, how he could have brought Euridice back from the Underworld if he hadn't looked back to check she was there.
We walk on into the next room and see a collection of Greek amphorae, urns, dishes and other pottery. These are evidence of the wine trade in the Aix area, and of the close proximity of Marseilles, a city of ancient Greek settlers for several hundred years. The Romans too had an obvious presence in this region - the name Provence denotes that this was as Roman province, and Aix was a Roman city with baths fed by the springs. Yesterday we visited the Roman temple behind the winery at Chateaux Bas in the countryside north of Aix, looking delicious in the evening Sun, something out of a Claude Loraine pastoral idyll in oil, (and now I imbibe the produce of this local vineyard as I write).
But the cultural richness in this area doesn't extinguish my curiosity about the older culture; rather it acts as a big signpost, an arrow pointing fervently at Arcadia. Almost every subsequent culture, every stage of art, Modern Art included, has been haunted by this older culture. Even Picasso, the leading figure of Modern Art, was interested in "primitive" art and went through his phase of painting fauns playing pipes, and minotaurs, and the arrow points on back through the Bacchanals of Poussin, to Poussin's inspiration, Titian, and other Renaissance masters, back to classical antiquity of course, where these half-human half-animal characters stalk the stone stages and the stories. Even today when I look into the shaded rocky woodland of the sunny South, the pine-clad slopes of these ancient hills, I continually expect to see a satyr dance from shadow to shadow. But the arrow points back to a time earlier even than classical antiquity, for the cave paintings of the Old Culture here in France show us a bison-headed man - a minotaur - and also a silenus, for the so-called Dancing Sorcerer cave painting has the tail, mane and quite possibly the genitals of a horse, just as do the silenoi that frolic through the art and myths of Ancient Greece. What was this older culture where shamans or totemites would don such costumes, the civilization which predated yet lasted more than three times as long as the full four thousand years of pharaonic Egypt, and the fertile ground out of which has sprouted all that has followed in Western Culture? This is the great mystery.