Inside the exhibition, it claims the oldest known figurative art appears in Europe towards the end of the last ice age, about 40,000 years ago, and yet here I was still outside and one of the exhibits had just walked out of the entrance doors! But no, the ancient relic in front of me was an old woman huffing and tutting her way to replacing her audio/visual aid. I slipped past and into the low lit exhibition room. A distant irregular drip could be heard, making the cool grey room feel like an ancient cave, filled with treasure from the entire width of continental europe, from decorated weaponry to flutes
One of the first objects was the Lion Man found in Stadel cave in Germany. Looking good for it’s forty thousand years, it is cleverly carved in mammoth’s ivory and depicts a man’s body with an instantly recognisable lions head. The carver demonstrating the capability to imagine something that does not exist. While it is impossible to know why it was created, the existence of this capability kicks your mind into touch, as possibilities open up and more questions flood through.
Some things seem to have remained constant, and the female form in its softly curved, fully figured glory is the subject of a number of sculptures. In a freezing climate that would have required at least some clothing, the fact that most of the figures are naked, could possibly indicate a more artistic depiction, especially as women in all stages of their lives are depicted. The exhibition hypothesises that they could have been created by women rather than men, nearby a Henry Moore shows how far art has come in forty thousand years (not very, or perhaps full circle).
Tucked to the side but perhaps more fascinating was a male doll or puppet, with moveable limbs, buried with a man who had pain from a disease of his joints. What purpose did it serve? Did he make it, did someone else make it as a talisman?
It was a while before I moved on, and a bit further on is the Zaraysk Bison. An adult female carved in mammoth tusk, in exact proportion and three dimensions. Despite her small size you fully expect her to wander up to the glass or dip her head to graze.
She is not as small however, as the miniatures, some of which have holes for cords which indicated they would have been worn upside down, possibly to be lifted up and viewed by the wearer. On other works there are abstract drawings, perspective when more than one animal was featured, and a spinning pendant, that had a cow on one side and a calf on the other. Even more practical items, such as spear throwers and antler batons, an essential part of a hunting man’s kit, were adorned with animal sculptures or motifs, art crept into practical use over pure form even then.
This is a brilliant exhibition, that will linger in your mind long after you exit through the gift shop into the searing brightness of the great court.
We can only speculate what Ice Age people were thinking, what place those sculptures held in their life and beliefs, but whatever it was, they were skilled enough to give it form with their hands,and minds.
Ice Age Art is on at the British Museum until the 2nd of June, details here