Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind @ the British Museum

To the British Museum for their wonderful exhibition Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind. The curators have assembled a few hundred, mostly small, some very small, artefacts from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. 15 of them are selected for extended commentary on the audioguide. The exhibition is small and beautifully formed, like most of its contents – the audioguide takes only 45 minutes – which is just as well because you have to peer and strain to see a lot of the detail on the tiniest objects and there’s a lot to read for every one of the exhibits. By the end I was full.

Female figure sculpted from steatite. Found at Grimaldi, Italy, about 20,000 years old. Musee d'archeologie nationale. Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

Female figure sculpted from steatite. Found at Grimaldi, Italy, about 20,000 years old. Musee d’archeologie nationale. Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

Two ideas The curators have had two ideas:

Idea 1 The ubiquity of design and artifice, the care and craft which went into these tiny objects, prove that cro-Magnon man had brains every bit as modern as ours. They show “practised artists experimenting with perspectives, scale, volumes, light and movement, as well as seeking knowledge through imagination, abstraction and illusion.” The promotional video features animations of brain synapses crackling. A neuroscientist is interviewed once on the guide. Hmm. All this is asserted but not really proved. It would have been good to read a really thorough, peer-reviewed, evidence-based paper on the subject, rather than the boosterish claims of Neil MacGregor and audioguide presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Idea 2 To reinforce this proposition, the curators intersperse the Ice Age “art” with works by Matisse, Henry Moore, Brassai and other classic Modern artists. The idea is to reinforce the notional continuity between the Ice Age mind and our own. Look! We see things the same. Instead, this tactic reminded me of the bankruptcy of modern art which was forced to abandon its millenia-old realist heritage at the turn of the 20th century and embrace ‘primitive’ and ‘ancient’ art from whichever sources it could pillage. That people living 40,000 years ago are people is evident; that they put an immense amount of time and care into creating these objects is apparent; that they had minds like our own and appreciated art, volume, space, light, pattern and design is empty words; how can we ever know? The overwhelming likelihood is that everything we mean by “art” today – the creation of precious artefacts by a privileged caste designed to be preserved forever in public or private collections, periodically sold at auction for record-breaking sums, and catalogued and written about by a highly-educated coterie – would be incomprehensible to Ice Age people. It’s barely comprehensible to most of us living now.

Two periods Roughly speaking, the exhibition divides into early and late Ice Age art. Not very much has survived from 30,000+ years ago which makes these treasures which have seem all the more valuable, strange and moving. The exhibition features the oldest ceramic, what the curators claim is the oldest portrait sculpture (of a woman’s head), the oldest sculpture of an animal (the lion man), the oldest puppet or doll. It is mind-blowing to contemplate them and really ponder their ancient ancientness. Twenty, twenty-five, thirty thousand years old!

The oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic. c.26,000 years old. Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute

The oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic. c.26,000 years old. Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute

Prevalent among the oldest pieces are bulbous women with enormous buttocks and boobs, fertility images which we’ve all seen before, like this Female figure sculpted from steatite, some 20,000 years old! I’ve always read that these are fertility objects, presumably carved by men to worship or invoke the fathomless fertility, the mystery of the Female. Well, after a long detour, feminism has arrived at the Museum because both curators and a woman artist asked to comment suggested that the foreshortening of the figures and the emphasis on boobs and hips may be because they were made by women, for women in celebration of their femininity, and have the shape they do because that’s what a woman sees when she looks down at her own body. I’m surprised the audioguide didn’t burst into a few rousing choruses of Sisters are doing it for themselves 🙂

This may be true. It may not. What this comic outburst of feminism suggests to me is that we haven’t a clue what these images are for. We don’t know who made them or why or what they are meant to represent or how they were meant to be used. It seems as presumptuous of the curators to assert they were made by women as it is to assert that Ice Age humans had the same brains as ourselves, or a lot of the other assertions contained herein. Even our best claims are palpably guesses, and always have been. Thirty years ago they were carved by men in awe of female fertility. Now they were carved by women for themselves. Thirty years hence another theory will hold sway. And so on forever.

Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice, the oldest ceramic figure in the world; On loan from Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno.

Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice, the oldest ceramic figure in the world; On loan from Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno.

Having read all the labels and listened to all the commentary and absorbed all the details and descriptions – I’m happy for the works themselves to return to the mysterious depths of the human spirit, to the impenetrable prehistoric gloom where they came from…

Their message is their unfathomable Mystery, their complete unknowability. The thoughts they prompt in us – even the most scholarly and specialist among us – are no more than speculation. Educated guesses.

Part two The cold grew more intense until a moment known as the Late Glacial Maximum 13,000-10,000 years ago, after which the ice began to withdraw and Europe slowly warmed. From this point onwards the guide speaks a little incongruously of a ‘renaissance’, meaning that many more objects are found as, presumably, human settlements and human numbers rise, and these of much greater craftsmanship than before.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France, c. 13,000-14,000 years old; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France, c. 13,000-14,000 years old; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Standout artefacts were the deer antlers carved with one or two centimetre wide holes drilled in them. We think they are spear throwing devices. We think that rope from skins was looped through the holes then onto the back end of spears to help propel the spear further and faster than mere throwing – like those plastic ball-throwers dog-owners use. A video shows the curators being shown how to throw them. And maybe this theory is true. Lots of these objects have been found and almost all are decorated with geometric designs or pictures of the wild animals which were hunted.

Probably the most beautiful object was the sculpture of two reindeer swimming carved out of a mammoth tusk. The details of the heads, of the shining eyes, the cross-hatching to indicate fur, even the way the rear one’s head was laying flat on the rump of the one ahead, as reindeer can be observed behaving to this day, was marvellous.

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; 13,000 years old approximately; Montastruc, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; 13,000 years old approximately; Montastruc, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Smashed One theme which was mentioned again and again in the labelling but wasn’t addressed as an issue in the commentary is that a large number of these “amazing works of art” had been carefully and deliberately damaged, smashed to pieces and buried. Could it be that many or most of them weren’t anything like what we mean by “work of art”, but were tools used in rituals, ceremonial artefacts, and that, when they had been “used”, when the hunting or fertility performance or ceremony was over – they had to be smashed to pieces and buried. Used and thrown away. This theory is speculation, like all the others, but it does take account of the fact that lots and lots of the artefacts had not only been deliberately and painstaking created, but then deliberately and painstakingly destroyed; lots have had to be reassembled from fragments.

In which case, if many or most of these artefacts were implements, tools and vessels for rituals – then they are not art at all, not in our modern sense of eternally enduring creations of the imagination which must be preserved and categorised and shown in special places called museums and galleries. They may, they do, display signs of great care and skill at depicting animals with wonderful insight, humans in strange symbolic form, or geometric patterning. And we may choose to call this “artistic endeavour” and attempts to “situate the human within the natural world” and “shamanistic tokens mediating between the human mind and the animal mind”. Curators and cataloguers can call them whatever they like, triggering greater or smaller resonance in the minds of us, the spectators.

But the point is, we just don’t know and we never will know. This exhibition confronts us, chasteningly, invigoratingly, with the bottomless depths of our ignorance.

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind continues until 26 May.

Jonathan Jones’s review in the Guardian

Richard Dorment’s review in The Telegraph

TJ Clark’s review in the London Review of Books

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm @ Tate Britain | Books & Boots

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: