Magazine article The Spectator

ARTS 40,000 Years BC

Magazine article The Spectator

ARTS 40,000 Years BC

Article excerpt

Andrew Lambirth is riveted by the British Museum's display of Ice Age art, which effortlessly leaps the centuries

The best way to approach any exhibition is with a clear and uncluttered mind, without expectations or prejudices. Of course this is often impossible, for all sorts of reasons, particularly when we have some familiarity with the subject on view. Inevitably we are besieged by images and opinions before we enter an exhibition of Manet or Picasso, but with Ice Age Art I was able to approach without any troubling preconceptions. I arrived at the British Museum in a state of pleasant anticipation, and within minutes I was entirely won over. The curator, Jill Cook, has given us an extraordinary glimpse of a long-distant age which yet feels incredibly fresh and relevant to us today.

The exhibition's subtitle is 'arrival of the modern mind' and its thesis - that Ice Age art gave us the first figurative art in the world

and thus encompassed the dawning of how we think now - is entirely convincing. Yet the sheer ancientness of this work can be daunting. The last European Ice Age occurred between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, and these numbers are literally mind-numbing.

The first object in the exhibition is a small figure carved from mammoth ivory found at Lespugue in France. She has big breasts and hips and heavy thighs, a figure created for or by child-bearing. Obviously a celebration of fertility, but also something else: with her bowed head and delicate shoulders, she suggests a Madonna-like modesty and perhaps even a spiritual identity. She is 23,000 years old, and yet she so excited Picasso with her echoes of Cubist fracturing and stylisation that he owned two replicas of her.

So it should be noted early on that this is an exhibition of art rather than dry-asdust antiquities (if such things actually exist outside people's prejudices). The way this sculpture effortlessly leaps the centuries and communicates with us directly says something about its continuing relevance, but also reaffirms Modern Art's debt to art of earlier ages. Until the 19th century, artists saw painting and sculpture as simply developing and getting better all the time, evolving and becoming more refined. The 20th century decided that art had become too civilised and stagnant and needed to become reacquainted with its more primitive roots.

This is when Picasso and his friends in France, and Epstein and his friends in England, began to look closely at so-called primitive and tribal art, and relearn less polished methods of expression. This exhibition emphasises that reconnection by hanging a few relevant examples of Modernist art with the Ice Age works. Thus we have a couple of Matisse prints in the first room, a lithograph of a semi-reclining nude and a delicious aquatint of a standing figure, seductive as Salome. Also there's a more recent charcoal drawing by Ghislaine Howard called 'Pregnant Self-Portrait', which offers a poignant counterpoint to the earth mother sculptures all around. In that first room is a rather Egyptian-looking 'Lion Man' from Germany (loans come from across Europe and the Russian Federation), and one of the oldestknown flutes, made from the wing bone of a Griffon Vulture. There are small ivory animals (lions, bison, mammoth, horses) and a diving water bird. The latter may have had a special spiritual significance since in its daily occupations it moves on or through three elements - earth, air and water.

There's also the oldest known ceramic figure in the world, from the Czech Republic: sharp shoulders, large pendulous breasts, curvy hips, and eye slits as the only facial feature. …

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