The Diablo Cave Paintings

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  • The Diablo Cave PaintingsAuthor(s): David GebhardSource: Art Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Winter, 1960-1961), pp. 79-82Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 17:32

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  • David Gebhard


    It has only been within the past decade that a number of

    professional art historians have begun to devote their effort to a study of primitive art. Within the last few years, important studies have been produced on many phases of the primitive art of Africa, of Central America, and of the South Seas. But one need not go so far afield to encounter many intriguing ex-

    amples of primitive art, for in North America, there remains an almost untouched field which is simply waiting for serious

    study and exploration. It is unfortunate that so few people have

    experienced or are even aware of the great wealth of prehistoric and historic rock drawings which occur in the plains, mountain and coastal regions of the western United States.

    From an aesthetic and cultural point of view, the most

    intriguing of these prehistoric American drawings are to be found in four locations: the caves and shelters along the coast of Southern California, on the protected cliff faces and rock shelters in eastern and northern Utah, on cliffs and loose boul- ders in the high mountain valleys and plains of western Wyo- ming, and finally in cave-shelters and on protected rock surfaces near the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers in southwestern Texas and in the adjacent area of northern Mexico. The drawings of each of these areas reveal a distinct and very individual style of representation. While each of these may share certain design and subject matter characteristics with draw-

    ings from other areas, nevertheless, they have their own idio-

    syncracies of style. According to our present information, each of these four groups is restricted to a specific geographic area and would seem to have been made during a very brief period of time.

    The area located at the joining of the Pecos with the Rio Grande is now undergoing a thorough archaeological examina-

    tion, for soon many of these prehistoric painting sites will be flooded owing to the construction of the Diablo Dam on the Rio Grande. Although only a preliminary study of these paint- ings has been completed, it is possible to discern as many as six very distinct styles. These styles range in time from an un- determined date before 900 A.D. to as late as the mid-nineteenth

    century. The oldest and at the same time the most spectacular and aesthetically interesting of these styles is that which was

    produced by a group called the Pecos River Focus. Their paint- ings are to be found in well over one hundred cave-shelters located in the many deep canyons of the area. The floors of these cave-shelters often contain deep midden deposits which have

    yielded the tools, weapons, implements, baskets, mats, and

    The author who received the Ph.D. in history of Art at the University of Minne- sota has been director of the Roswell (New Mexico) Museum and Art Center since 1955. He is now on a Fulbright Fellowship in Turkey.

    Map of the Diablo Region, indicating sites visited and studied.

    other objects used by these people through hundreds of years. These cave-shelters, some over 400 feet in length and 80 feet in height, contain intricate polychrome paintings in panels occa-

    sionally up to several hundred feet in length. In the more pro- tected shelters, these paintings are remarkably well preserved.

    These Pecos drawings employ a variety of colors: two shades of red, black, yellow, white, orange and blue-green. The commonest colors in all the paintings of this Diablo area are the two shades of red and black. Generally, in the Pecos draw-

    ings, not more than three colors occur in the delineation of a

    single figure, although one individual cave may well contain as many as seven different colors. The colored pigments were obtained locally; the reds, yellow and orange were made from ochres, limonite and hematite; the black, from powdered man-

    ganese; the white, from gypsum, kaolin, or barite; and the blue-

    green, from copper-oxide obtained in Mexico or to the west from southern New Mexico. In most cases, it would seem that the dry pigment was mixed with an oil or animal fat and applied with a brush; in some cases though, the pigment was allowed to dry into a hard congregate mass, and this was sharpened for direct application to the surface. There seem to have been certain

    procedures followed in the production of these drawings. For

    example, the red colors were, more often than not, applied first, and were followed by orange, white and finally by black. In a number of these sites, Pecos Style drawings have been painted partially or wholly over one another. But these superimpositions do not seem to represent a chronological sequence within the

    style, but rather point to an aspect of the technique which was utilized in producing the complete drawings.

    79 Gebhard: The Diablo Cave Paintings

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  • Fig. 1. Paintings on wall of cave-shelter in Rattlesnake Canyon. Almost all of the visible perpendicular elements are human representations.

    Fig. 2. Two elongated drawings of human figures painted in reds and yellows. Notice that the artist wishes to concentrate the viewer's attention on the arms, hands and the objects held by the figures.

    Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Pecos paintings is their close homogeneity of style. All of these pictographs are very similar in style, in technique, in drawings and in subject matter. This similarity would seem to indicate that all the draw- ings of the Pecos Type were produced over a very short period of time, perhaps less than two hundred years.

    On the whole, each of the panels would seem to constitute a single unified design. The human figure usually, but not always, dominates the panels. Weapons, especially atlatls, darts and throwing sticks; animals, such as antelope, deer, wolf and, above all, the cougar; plants, such as the sotol and yucca; and a variety of unidentifiable geometric forms were also depicted. Basically each of the groups of drawings were visually held together as a unit by the recapitulation of similar groups of colors and lines and by the repetition of a series of parallel per- pendicular elements, which were often reinforced from below by broad bands of color. These perpendicular accents were achieved by elongating the human figures, by dividing the human figures into vertical lines and color planes, and by occa- sionally encompassing them in one or more straight or wavy lines. The elongation of the human figures was further accen- tuated by long vertical or angled tassels hanging from the el- bows, by objects projecting upward from hands or arms, by what appear to be headdresses, by the grouping of vertical rows of throwing sticks and finally by emphasizing the atlatls and darts as angled or vertical lines.

    Although each individual design element of the Pecos drawings was symmetrical and well balanced, the panel as a whole is actually dominated by an extreme nervous tension which is evident in the play between solid color areas and in the use of tenacious moving lines, the injection of angled lines

    Fig. 3. Two conventionalized human figures dramatically placed between two leaping figures of the cougar. The human figures are depicted in a relatively static pose, especially in relation to the animated quality of the two animals.

    of different colors which move against the vertical design and the occasional continuation of the design from the main area of the panel onto the ceiling of the shelter.

    The establishment of a sense of space is one of the most fascinating aspects of these drawings. As is generally true of primitive painting, any reference to specific space, which in the end we must recognize as simply another method of represent- ing space, is eliminated. The figures define a visual space in which, by two dimensional planes and surfaces, they create a spatial rythmn, and above all, a visual tension between them- selves and the surface upon which they are painted. The colors


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  • Fig. 4. Another cougar in a leaping pose with a rather calm-appearing figure of a human below the animal.

    Fig. 5.