Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

Jeremy MacClancy on the British Museum’s new exhibition linking Ice Age artistry to the Modernists

February 7, 2013

Source: Jean-Gilles Berizzi/The Trustees of the British Museum

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

British Museum, London, until 26 May

The first item you see is an enchanting female figurine, perhaps 12cm by 5cm. Her ivory body is geometrically fragmented into full breasts, broad hips, an oval head. If produced yesterday, I would think it a skilfully carved, perfectly proportioned abstraction of womanhood, in a very belated neo-Cubist style. Knowing it was produced 23,000 years ago, I gawp at this wondrous Venus sculpted by a visionary member of our distant ancestors. They might have been hunter-gatherers shivering the wintry nights away but at least some of them knew how to create beauty out of a dead beast’s tusk.

This compact show is full of such masterpieces: most small, some truly tiny, a few of medium size. There are lions leaping, reindeer swimming, a duck diving, recumbent bison, ponderous mammoths, a prancing horse with an anatomically impossible neck of elegant elongation. A large display case is devoted to Venuses with pendulous breasts and pneumatic backsides. Adulation of the female form as one of soft curves and full figure seems the order of these long-gone days. The only males on show are a minuscule plaque of a man with raised arms and a deteriorated puppet in bits. If a point is being made, I am not sure what it is.

The variety of items is matched by their diversity of function. Besides figures, there are batons, spear-throwers, pendants, beads, breastplates, pins, spatulas - and a flute made from a vulture’s wing-bone. Curator Jill Cook is honest enough to include a “Who knows?” section. So we see “spoon- shaped items” and an antler finely crafted with animals, dubbed a “sceptre” although its actual use is, according to an accompanying note, “completely unknown”.

A real problem for a show covering this period is the display of parietal - or cave-wall - art. Simply sticking a photograph on a wall gives an impoverished, two-dimensional idea of the inspired ways in which the more imaginative of our forebears exploited the sculptural potential of caves. Here, the exhibition designers have compromised brilliantly: in a darkened room, decorated stretches from different caves are continuously projected over a lumpy inclination above the entrance. As the projection moves from left to right, the figures passing over the uneven surface seem to prance, jump, then fall. When the images move from top to bottom, the bison and aurochs threaten to cascade over us in a waterfall. It is not just children who will love this: I was transfixed.

The original makers of these works were not ignorant chisellers or desultory daubers. While some were clearly more talented than others, the better pieces were patently produced by true artists, as we understand that term. These highly skilled workers had learned how to master line, form, pattern, perspective and contrast. They could carve or paint in naturalistic or abstract styles, and they experimented with light, scale, volume and movement. The only “primitive” things about this show are the visitors who use such words about it.

These objects were not quickly turned out, either. It is estimated that many of the pieces took hundreds of hours to manufacture. Since these people survived on near-constant hunting and foraging, the extended work involved in making, say, a simple cylindrical bead attests to the great value they granted these products of their labour.

The objects exhibited are wondrous marvels in themselves. But Cook wishes to argue their value further. To her, they are also evidence of the emergence of the modern mind. Our ancestors could store, transmit and analyse large amounts of information accurately through speech and visual symbols. Able to think abstractly, they made art to communicate and as a way to understand themselves and their place in the world. She thus rejects the term “prehistory”, which distances us from them, in favour of “deep history”, which stresses continuity.

Yet Cook, like the aforementioned horse sculpture, wants to stretch her neck even further. As experimenters, these Ice Agers found visual solutions that are directly comparable to those formulated by Modernist artists of the past century. The layout of the exhibition reinforces the point. Next to the figurine at the entrance is a photo of Picasso’s studio, which shows that this Venus impressed him so much that he kept two copies of it on his shelves. In another case, minimalist female figures by Ice Age artists and sculptures by George Brassai are lined up together. Nearby, tools and utensils incised with lines of chevrons are placed alongside similarly composed drawings by Piet Mondrian and Victor Pasmore.

Cook creates these juxtapositions to demonstrate that “ideas of creativity and expression have remained remarkably similar across thousands of years”. These connections highlight “the fundamental human desire to create works of great beauty”. Are we meant to see Picasso and his cohort as little more than johnny-come-latelys reinventing age-old answers to tired visual problems?

A polemical show like this is bound to provoke queries. The art-historical parallel is arguably pushed too far at times. The viewing of parietal art on site is considered “surreal”. Cook classes damp terracotta items placed in a fire so they would explode as “performance art”, and she admits that it is “naughty” to call the efflorescence of art that commenced in 22,000BC a “renaissance”.

The European and Russian focus of the exhibition also threatens to skew the points being made. The age of the objects on show, roughly 40,000 to 20,000 years old, is remarkable. But art, albeit non-figurative, was already being produced in southern Africa more than 50,000 years before. Compared with that subcontinent, the European emergence of the modern brain is a very late phenomenon.

The show includes, as examples of art, beautifully crafted hand-tools too large to be of use. Yet massively over-elaborated axe-heads were being carved in Africa a million years ago. Some archaeologists brand these overworked items “peacock tails”.

Once again, the Neanderthals do not get the press they deserve. Here, they are left out. But there is good suggestive evidence that they were producing art, although not equal to the better pieces in this show, in their latter years.

Of course, a state-of-the-art show cannot be definitive, just up to date. Older items may yet be dug up. In particular, further work in southeast Europe will quite probably uncover earlier, equally gobsmacking pieces. Chinese archaeologists may yet find pieces of comparable antiquity and quality. Further excavations will only extend and enrich our knowledge.

The show’s claim of an unbroken, biologically based aesthetic is unsettling. One worry is that worked symbolic objects whose craftsmanship is not congruent with the Western aesthetic canon will not be identified as art. That would make our understanding of Ice Age art circular. Another worry is that the claimed link with the Modernists is made at the expense of other periods in the history of Western art, as though parallels with more naturalistic modes of representation were not worth investigating. Furthermore, by concentrating on the visual appeal of these portable, holdable objects we run the risk of bypassing their potential tactile qualities.

The government forces funded museums to pull the punters in. The exhibitors of this show want, very laudably and correctly, to win new audiences for these bedazzling objects. The archaeologically inclined will turn up anyway. Whether or not you accept all the curator’s claims, the astonishing quality of the items makes the exhibition well worth the trip.

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