Since they were discovered by chance in 1940 by four teenagers and a dog, the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, created about 17,000 years ago, have lost none of their power to fascinate. Researchers recently suggested that the drawings were early attempts at creating the illusion of animated motion in flickering light, while other scientists have theorized that the exaggeration of certain features in these paintings provides valuable information about how our brains process the world.
But, with the exception of a few scientists and government officials, Lascaux’s caves have been off-limits since 1963, when it was discovered that carbon dioxide produced by visitors was changing the cave’s climate and degrading the artworks. A replica, called Lascaux 2, was constructed in 1983, but it only reproduced two of the cave’s halls. At the end of last year, the region of Aquitaine and the department of Dordogne announced their intention to build a new reproduction and visitors' center, Lascaux 4. (Lascaux 3 is a traveling exhibition of reproductions, which opened in Bordeaux this month and will travel to Chicago’s Field Museum in March.)
Last week, the Aquitaine region and the department of Dordogne jointly announced that the Norwegian firm Snøhetta had won the competition to design the new replica. In a press release, officials said that the committee was impressed by Snøhetta’s design, which “is perfectly integrated into the bottom of the hill.” There will be a reproduction of the entire cave, along with a digital presentation and a space devoted to the interpretation of cave paintings.
Lascaux 4 is expected to open in July 2015, and will be able to accommodate up to 400,000 visitors annually. By way of comparison, Lascaux 2 receives 250,000 visitors per year, and its proximity to the original cave site (650 feet) is considered a hazard to the paintings, especially since many visitors come by car.
This is great news for the project, which has had to face a few financial setbacks over the past few months. The French government had previously pledged €15 million in support of Lascaux 4, but last month culture minister Aurélie Filippetti axed the funding in a series of budget cuts. Local officials pledged to continue the project, and now, according to Le Journal des Arts, the culture ministry has reversed itself while settling on a much lower allocation of financial support, just €4 million . Since the total cost is €50 million, there remain significant funding gaps to be filled.
According to Le Nouvel Observateur, the center may include a space to show contemporary art with a connection to prehistoric paintings — an approach that could possibly attract that much-needed financial support from the art world.