Attended Wednesday 29 May 2013
There they are – carved from auroch horn, mammoth tusk, baked in clay or chipped away from stone – the earliest vestiges of European artistic endeavour. They are horses, reindeer, bison, women, men, mask: carved, engraved and moulded, realistic and fantastic. They are awesome. The predominantly grey-headed crowd is mostly silent, staring respectfully and moving closer, closer to the fingerprint-globbed cases seeking to close the distance with the treasures inside.
The British Museum has gathered an extraordinary collection of masterpieces from the last Ice Age in Europe, dating from between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, in an exhibition entitled, Ice Age Art: the Arrival of the Modern Mind. Particularly potent are the representations of women, including the modelled figure of a woman from Dolni Vestonice, apparently the oldest ceramic figure in the world. The clay is dark, shiny, and moulded to show the pendulous breasts and sizeable thighs of a faceless pear-shaped woman. Another cabinet, which draws the largest crowd, is full of figurines of pregnant women, of different shapes, sizes and materials. The exhibition notes conjecture that, due to the focus on the reproductive body, these expressions were made by women for women. It is a comforting thought.
The Ice Age Art is placed alongside carefully selected modern works by Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, and more – to demonstrate the influence of the prehistoric works on artists of our time. A particular link is made between the later, more stylised Ice Age female figurines which reduce women’s bodies to their essential sexuality and modern abstract art and sculpture. While the modern works were interesting, in this context they seemed to recede into the background completely. I found myself skipping by them, as if they were garish advertising billboards to be edited out of a streetscape. The real power and beauty in the room emanates from the works of ancient artists, so old and yet so real. These artists are nameless, genderless, apolitical, unencumbered by biography but, as demonstrated in the Lion Man sculpture (which shows the head of a lion on the body of a man) have a sense of beauty and imagination not so different from our own.
Experiencing the Ice Age Art exhibition is an uplifting experience, it leaves you feeling full of wonder and hope. Sadly, it closes on 1 June 2013. If I dream tonight I hope it will be of those reindeer swimming, carved on a mammoth tusk, with fluidity beyond cold ivory.