There is an exhibition going on at the British Museum, London. Anyone who cares to look at it objectively it is going to change the preconceived views one may had about our ancestors. There is a female form more than a wart-and all study of a particular woman, which predates Modigliani. She is carved from a mammoth’s tusk may probably the oldest portrait in the world. Dug from the earth of Moravia in the Czech Republic, she is 26,000 years old. To think this was worked with no more sophisticated than a chip of flint we may even believe art was free indeed when it was vital to our ancestors as their daily meat and spiritual solace. From the same immense campsite, comes another female figure, the celebrated clay woman of Brno.
With her rounded navel and wide hips she is (just as obviously) less of an individual than a form. Indeed she has no face, only a curious, visor-like mask, although her back is attentively described in all its plump folds. To see these two creations at the British Museum is not just a marvel – the oldest portrait, and the oldest ceramic figure ever found – but a revelation about the dawn of culture. For the first clay objects to be fired in those ancient kilns were not pots, as one might imagine, but sculptures.
Music for our ancestors must have meant more than just making sounds. A flute made from solid vulture’s bone (apparently high-toned) probably part of shamanic rites.
Art of animation is presupposed in the same animal depicted in sequential movements, as it rushes along. There were surely toys: miniature figures of baby bison and buffalo, perfectly scaled to an infant’s palm, were carved to stand up on their own tiny feet. If art is so bound up with life and our hunter-gatherer in expressing their life unabashedly used art as a vehicle we may expect some humor thrown in as well. for the exhibition has it: when you spun the ivory disc etched with a small mammoth on one side and a larger version on the other, the baby grew up; an optical illusion still cherished today.
One of the few male figures in this show is a puppet, head and arms connected to the torso by pegs so that they could be manipulated. The face has the something of the Turin Shroud about its eerie eye sockets and skeletal cheeks; twisting in the shadow and firelight of an ice age cave, it must have been a real frightener.
What comes across so clearly is the immense difficulty of making such objects at that time. There are etchings on ivory specially selected for its slight variations in colour, indicative of landscape, where the needle-sharp burin has had to be fashioned from rock. There are carvings in mammoth tusk that took months to make. They know this, at the British Museum, for they have had the Lion Man of Hohlenstein copied: it took the craftsman 420 hours, and he wasn’t retiring to a freezing cave every night.
The lion-man – or man-lion – depicts the king of the beasts standing upright and steady as a man. Talisman, deity, fetish, toy: its function is unclear. But there is no mystery about its origin: it comes straight from the imagination.
It’s often suggested that these works are merely depictions, yet even in the respect of realism this art is superb. Look at the bison cow loping towards you, mouth open as if calling to her calves; look at the reindeer struggling in the rapids, body strong but burled about by the water; or the woman about to give birth, arms simultaneously cradling and shielding her belly in a tender gesture that brings the coming child to mind.
These works are so inflected with character and moment that verisimilitude is by no means their only ambition. The lively bison at the entrance to this show – the male frisky, the female wary – were made more than 20,000 years ago. It’s not just that one cannot think of a single Renaissance sculptor to surpass them, it’s that the men or women who made them had no training, no knowledge of classical sculptures, no modern tools, and were working twice over in the dark.
For these bison were shaped out of clay deep inside a French cave. There was no daylight, and the potential scope and lumens of ice age torches was so limited that these artists are unlikely ever to have seen the whole of their sculptures at once.
Anyone who has seen the cave paintings of Lascaux, Altamira or Chauvet in reproduction or on film will have some sense of the astonishing power and beauty of this art. What the British Museum offers is a unique chance to see it in reality, gathered from all over Europe and in three dimensions. And not the least truth of this great exhibition is that art arrives in the world fully formed. Potent, subtle, imaginative, brilliantly skilled: ice age art stands equal with what follows, proving anew the old adage that there is no progress in art only change.
Just to see this earliest art from another Europe, between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, would be sufficient in itself, but what is so remarkable is just how deeply it deserves that name of art.
Some scholars refuse to regard these objects as any kind of art because their social purpose cannot be established. Go if you can, and see for yourself. You may wonder if caution has turned these specialists blind.
On one level the show is pure knowledge condensed in the most beautiful forms. It opens a door into the ice age: how the world looked, how human beings looked, how they saw that world. A bison runs at you, hair rippling. A lion leaps, ready to overwhelm its prey from behind. Ivory swans fly through the air, tapering like elegant arrows as they mysteriously disappear overhead.( Laura Cumming ,The Observer)
Ice Age art is a stupendous show.
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