Thursday, 11 April 2013

Long-term traditions through the Ice Age

As promised, I am this week reviewing the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum. This exhibition will be there until the end of May, so the first May bank holiday allows seeing both the Pompeii exhibition and this show on portable art during the Ice Age.

It is lacking the Venus of Willendorf, but otherwise a person in the know can spot many of the famous pieces from the widely-known caves and settlements across Eurasia. One could name check the Lady of Lespugue, the oldest known baked clay object, i.e. a female statuette from Dolni Vĕstonice, and the many finds from Kostienki. The wide distribution of the tiny female presentations with visible features suggesting plumpness, pregnancy and mature femininity from French caves to the sites in Siberia suggests shared ideas and exchange of ideas over large areas bordering the melting ice.

Apart from the female figurines the exhibition has an extensive collection of carved and engraved presentations of animals. The Ice Age hunters depicted the animals they were hunting, the mammoths, deer and bisons. The theme of the exhibition is the arrival of the modern mind. The cognitive capabilities and the first expressions of these is a worthy topic, but any presentation of the Neanderthals is lacking from the displays. The New Scientist blog suggests that the curator Jill Cook did want to spare the visitors from an avalanche of information on archaeological sites, chronology, modern humans and other lengthy topics, but perhaps some expansion of the subject matter behind the arguments presented in the exhibition about the emergence of our kind of mind could have been considered. The Neanderthals apparently did not create art as such, but it is known that they buried their dead with some offerings and ochre and this shows certain capability of grasping cognitive ideas. Most of the commentary on the modern mind also had certain tentativeness or uncertainty in it and different possibilities of interpretation were presented at length. There were also a few references of the importance of figurines as an inspiration of modern art. The Henry Moore Foundation had duly sponsored the exhibition and Picasso, Moore and Brassaï werer mentioned as some of the creators of minimalist female figures that emphasized a few key characteristics of a female body.

The female body and figurines did not only have a wide geographical distribution but the same themes, female body and animals, kept returning 25,000 years apart. Fertility and subsistence are key parts of human existence, so it is clear that the the humans have continued to represent the things that were the most important to them. The animal herds line different utilitarian objects from 20,000 years ago. The oldest presentation of an imaginary figure, the so-called lion man, has a considerable age, being dated to a period 40,000 years ago. This conceptual presentation predates the famous cave paintings with about 10,000 – 20,000 years, depending whose datings one is to believe.

Picasso's inspiration (photo by Jennings)

The exhibition design is minimalistic. A rare glimpse of colour faces the visitor in the art installation that tries to make tangible the confined spaces the cave paintings had been created in. There were hardly any seats and the shape of the area where the compilation of scenes from a selected number of caves was projected was awkward. This made it clear that the past art engraved or carved mainly onto or from bone, antler or mammoth ivory was the prime actor and the surroundings were not meant to outdo it.

Surprisingly, there was no paperback catalogue. The hardback volume was heavy, but the images were lovely. With a heavy heart I decided not to buy it. I wanted to visit other parts of the permanent exhibition plus visit the free In Search of Classical Greece exhibition, so I did not feel like carrying the substantial volume from one floor to another. In addition, one visitor was enquiring the possibility to buy a reproduction of the exhibition poster, but there were none. Another surprising miss of clear merchandising opportunity.

Interested in this and living near Leicester?

The earliest paintings
Tutor: Ulla Rajala

‘From Palaeolithic Altamira in Spain to Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Turkey and to prehistoric Scandinavia we will cover 20,000 years of monumental art. Learn the themes and settings of the earliest art work and discuss their meaning.’

6 meetings from Tuesday 16 April 2013, 1.30-3pm at Vaughan College, St Nicholas Circle, Leicester LE1 4LB. Full fee: £31.50. Free for those on means tested benefit (terms and conditions).

Easiest booking online or or call 0116 251 9740 (Thu, Fri, Mon, Tue mornings).

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