Magazine of art press and reviews from London
Superb “Ice Age Art” exhibition at the British Museum, London.
David Franchi – Monday, 24th June 2013.
“the skill and artistry will still astonish the viewer”
What was the main topic of “Ice Age Art” exhibition at the British Museum, London? For sure was to reveal that all art is a product of the remarkable structure and organisation of the modern brain.
“Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind” presented outstanding objects as artworks rather than archaeological finds, giving visitors the chance to see the meaning of art made long ago by people with developed brains like our own. Through archaeological evidence from Southern Africa, we can ascertain that the modern brain emerged just over 100,000 years ago with the appearance of art and complex behaviour patterns.
Jill Cook, Curator: “By looking at the oldest European sculptures and drawings we are looking at the deep history of how our brains began to store, transform and communicate ideas as visual images. The exhibition showed that we can recognize and appreciate these images. Even if their messages and intentions are lost to us, the skill and artistry will still astonish the viewer.”
This exclusive British Museum exhibition presented masterpieces of Ice Age sculpture, ceramics, drawing and personal ornaments from across Europe together for the first time in the UK. These included the oldest known ceramic figures in the world, as well as the oldest known portrait and figurative pieces, created over 20,000 years ago.
“Ice Age Art” exhibition for the first time brought together such sculptures, figurines and engravings made from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, discovered in a European area going from Spain to Siberia.
The beginning of Ice Age is related to migrations of humans from Africa into Europe about 45,000 years ago, towards the end of the last ice age. Migrants encountered indigenous population of Neanderthal people and the rigors of the cold climate at that time and these stimulated their imaginations, resulting in the production of remarkable works of art, such as the famous painted caves in as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira, as well as lesser known pieces made from stone, bone, antler and ivory. The oldest known figurative art appeared in Europe at the end of last Ice Age about 40,000 years ago.
“Ice Age Art” exhibition brought together many significant pieces, displaying them in different spaces, almost avoiding the traditional division in rooms, following a different but chronologically disposition.
When entering the exhibition at the British Museum, London, time fades away and the 40,000 years seem not such a long period. Artworks look very familiar, maybe because they represent our ancestral values. Recurrent topics were women, animals and the spirits world.
The British Museum exhibition set a cornerstone, despite ice age art inspired Avant-Garde artists of the 19th and 20th century of which some of their works were displayed, including Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian.
The first part of “Ice Age Art” exhibition focused on the period 40,000 – 20,000 years ago, by showing the first examples of Ice Age
Art: a Mammoth Ivory dated 23,000 years ago and an Ivory Sculpture of a Woman, together with other small figurines of Venuses shaped in many different ways from old to young, with a particular attention to pregnancy. Women in the late stages of pregnancy are an often used subject, the mystery of creation, the unknown power of life which is a basic of any culture or civilisation.
The British Museum exhibition proceeded with “Soft Curves and Figures”, showing pieces from Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic): a Venus dated 26,000 years ago, the oldest known ceramic figure; also a sculpture of a young man carved in mammoth ivory about three inches high (found 1891) which may represent the first example of portraiture.
Also was on show the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, a figure with the body of a man and the head of a lion. Dated 40,000 years ago, the Lion Man was found in the caves of Hohle Fels, just outside the town of Schelklingen, near Ulm, in Baden- Württemberg (Germany). This ivory sculpture is the oldest known zoomorphic (animal-shaped) sculpture in the world and one of the oldest known sculptures in general. Here a question arises: “How can something be imagined, if it does not exist?” which lead to the obvious answer the skills of those artists were far more developed then we can figure out.
The third room was about “Art and Identity”, showing ornaments and jewellery. Wearing ornaments is an almost universal human custom. Jewellery communicates information about the personal identity, beliefs and social status of the wearer.
The second part of British Museum exhibition examined the period between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, the Art of the Late Ice Age. After a period of intense cold known as the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago, the climate began to warm up. In Western Europe this coincided with a “Renaissance”, a rebirth of artistic creativity.
It was a time of usage of new techniques, different styles and distinctive repertoire of figurative art. Drawing started to emerge and topics used were the nature, and particularly animals, also trying to depict their movements. On display were finds from Grotte de la Vache in the Pyrenees and from Le Chaffaud cave, Poitou- Charente, France.
Also important from that period was the using of “Decorated Kits”, for example working tools and weapons were adorned, such as the Batons from La Madeleine, Pordogue.
Also another important topic for artists of that time was sex and symbols related to it.
To reach the last part of the British Museum exhibition it was necessary to pass through a dark room, a multimedia installation. Here a video screened images taken from the most important caves, including Chauvet, Lascaux, Pech Merle and Niaux (France); El Castillo (Spain).
The last part of this catching show, “Art and Mind”, disclosed that artists of that period had the same modern visual brain as our own, confirmed by the Teufelbruecke slate, Thuringia (Germany) or Head of a musk ox from Langerie, Dordogne (France) or the Swimming Reindeer from Montastruc (Tarn et Garonne, France).
“Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind” was at the British Museum, London, from 7th February until 2nd June 2013.