Exhibitions: Ice Age Art - British Museum

This piece, about 13,000 years old, was found in Montastruc, France

This piece, about 13,000 years old, was found in Montastruc, France

  • by Duncan Macmillan

THE exquisite work on many of these unimaginably old pieces gives the lie to the spurious notion that modern art is the pinnacle towards which all artists who came before have strived

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind


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There is nothing new under the sun, or at least as far as human inventiveness went, there wasn’t for a very long time. According to the British Museum’s Ice Age Art, we made do with much the same sort of stone axe for about a million years, then it all changed.

There is a flint blade here that is a perfectly symmetrical leaf shape, 30cm long, but just 6mm thick. It was made with exquisite care and extraordinary skill. It is a thing of beauty and may have been made to be just that, for it is not functional and may have been deliberately buried. Perhaps it was an offering to some long forgotten deity.

Found in France, in this context this object is relatively modern, dating from between 22,000 and 17,000 years ago. It was 40,000 years ago, 20,000 years earlier, that we started to make art. Here it ranges in origin from the edges of Siberia to France and from a period of prehistory that is seven or eight times longer than the whole historical period, the time since the beginning of what we call civilisation. Human endeavour was not static, however. The art evolved. Indeed this exhibition boldly posits the idea of a renaissance around the time, contemporary with the painted caves of southern France and Spain, that the flint blade was produced. A superb carving of two swimming reindeer is a stunning witness to the heights the art of that period could reach.

Art like this is extraordinary in its beauty and sophistication and it speaks to us in a language we immediately understand. Like everything else on view, it is sculpture. Everything is small, too, much is even tiny, but it is fascinating partly for that reason. The painted caves are on a grand scale. They were also set apart. They were never must-have mural decoration for fashionable cave dwellers. Deep underground and often difficult to access, they were sacred places. Correspondingly, therefore, these little things, figures and animals carved, modelled or drawn on ivory, bone, stone or even made of fired clay, no doubt in some way reflected a similar spiritual system, but they also have an intimacy, an association with ordinary life that is very moving.

There are images of brilliant vivacity of the hunter’s favourite prey – mammoth, bison, deer, reindeer, musk ox and horses. They are beautifully executed whether as line drawings, or as three dimensional models and their skill is striking.

In one drawing on bone of reindeer heads, for example, there is a clear sense of depth between two animals, but achieved with the greatest economy. In another, the observation is so subtle that it is possible to deduce the season from the condition of the reindeers’ coats. The vitality of a leaping lion carved in bone is manifest in every line.

Throughout, the balance of precise observation with power of simplification and economy of means is stunning. It is perhaps a measure of its value, too, that this art often seems to have been deliberately broken, as though as an offering, or perhaps to release the spirit it contained.

The objects are diverse. There are tools and decorated objects of unknown use and figurines that may have been cult objects. The first known ceramic sculpture is a clay figure of a woman made between 27,000 and 31,000 years ago. There is even what seems to have been stone age cinema. A disc of bone has a cow on one side and a calf on the other. They exactly match. Spinning on a twisted string, the calf would morph into the cow and back again.

Dating from 40,000 years ago, a lion-man with articulated limbs seems to be an animated model of a ritual figure. Another male figure also seems to have been a puppet, but images of men are infrequent. There is a startlingly individual portrait head, but it is of a woman and the most striking images are all of women. They didn’t do small sizes, however, and most are massively obese and also pregnant. Some are wearing beads and bracelets. Some are formalised, even reduced to abstract shapes of body and breasts, apparently worn as a talisman. One figure seems to be wearing a grass skirt just beneath her massive buttocks. In most, sagging breasts and folds of flesh are precisely observed.

The purpose of these sculptures is unknown, but it is hard to believe that at a time when perhaps sex and procreation were not so far removed from each other such mighty women did not in some way personify the life force. Other female figures include a teenage girl. She is slender waisted, but also already endowed with the massive hips that were evidently the sought after figure of the day. Fashions change.

There are spear throwers made of bone and antler. A hunter’s weapon, these were personal possessions and decorated with horses and other animals. Some of the execution is relatively unsophisticated which leads to the suggestion that men decorated their own kit. Correspondingly there seems to be ample evidence both in the manifest skill and in the archaeological record that artists were specialists and were recognised as such. There is evidence that the ceramicists, for instance, deliberated contrived explosions by putting damp clay in their furnaces. Showing off, no doubt, but they could only do it if they were in command of their materials.

The motor for this sudden spurt in human evolution was evidently climate change. Forty thousand years ago northern Europe was covered in ice. The ice retreated and then advanced again before finally beginning to retreat about 10,000 years ago to the position it occupied until recently. (Scotland seems to have remained glumly buried under ice throughout.)

Our ancestors had to adapt in the face of uncertainty. This favoured the bright and the ingenious. Collective memory and a sense of community would have mattered. Stories were probably important. Music certainly was. There are bone flutes here as witnesses. Perhaps pictures mattered too. The subtitle of the exhibition is “the arrival of the modern mind”. The thesis is that actual physiological changes resulting from the stress of these times led to the evolution of the modern brain and so produced this creativity. I can’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable about that teleology, as though our brains were the desired outcome of history. Bits of modern art are scattered among the ancient to drive home the idea that this was all leading up to something and that something was us. It doesn’t work. Imitators will always look thin and forced beside such originals. Their inclusion is in poor taste and mars an otherwise superb exhibition, but at least we don’t have here the distasteful spectacle of the splendid Ice Age ladies compared to Lucian Freud, as we do in the catalogue.

This art resembles neither child art, nor what we call primitive art. Based on close observation and intimate knowledge of its subject, the understanding of the natural world that this art represents was a matter of survival and it makes the moderns look trivial and capricious. Its sophistication makes nonsense of the long accepted narrative of art progressing from simple to complex, from elementary to sophisticated, and that in turn makes nonsense of notions like avant garde and cutting edge. Their force depends on the vision of art slicing its way through history towards ever greater illumination. If anything, we have gone backwards. After 40,000 years, we no longer even value drawing, and these marvellous artists from before the dawn of history would never win the Turner Prize.

• Until 26 May




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