Exhibition Review ~ Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind
This exhibition pulls together objects from the last Ice Age, works dating from 40000 to 10000 years ago. There is an absolute immediacy in these small, portable works of art that give us a vivid glimpse into the life of these long lost ancestors. There has been an attempt to marry these extraordinary works of art with modern pieces but this jars against the storytelling potency the small objects have and the modern greats seem diminished by their proximity to them.
It is this storytelling that highlights the modern mind of the exhibition title, fragments of bone carved with details of their day-to-day environment. Horses, birds, reindeer, lions, fighting, swimming, hunting... all the urgency and vibrant energy of the time encapsulated in the skilled line of the artist, the direct connection of eye to hand in a distillation of experience.
The first part of the exhibition deals with the many versions of the female form that have been found. These figurines, variously interpreted in the past as goddesses or fertility symbols are beguiling in their inability to offer up any clue to their symbolism. Rites of passage, fertility talismans, a visual guide to the life of women by women, portraits of a queen, eternal mother figures? There is no right or wrong answer, just a guess, at best.
Towards the end of the exhibition we find more practical items appearing, weapons, combs, spoons and beads emerging among the carved bones.Objects we still use today. Two pieces caught my eye.
One, a huge carved knuckle of a bone, perhaps the remains of a big and very welcome feast on which someone had carved a beautiful and instantly recognisable ptarmigan. A gorgeous, plump, arctic winter surviving, game bird. I can imagine sitting there in the winter sun, picking off the last flesh from the bone I've carried as my next meal, watching the birds wander across the tundra like hillsides, watching and waiting to go hunting for their eggs and drawing their lovely, plump, funny shape on the bone as I wait.
The second object is a comb, made from a bit of ivory or bone shaped like a foot with five teeth for toes. Funny and practical but mainly funny. A modern sense of humour? Of course a sense of humour, one of life's greatest survival tools and as valid today as during the ice-age.
The exhibition runs at the British Museum until the June 2nd 2013, for details click here.
While wandering around the British Museum
Museum cats keep
An eye open, just in case
For museum rats