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Exhibition Review: Ice Age Art @ British Museum

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 46 months ago
Exhibition Review: Ice Age Art @ British Museum
244627: Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France, c. 13,000???14,000 years old; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum
Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France, c. 13,000-14,000 years old; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum
934174: Fragment of decorated reindeer metatarsal (bone) engraved on the obverse surface with two reindeer, one of which is now incomplete; decorated bone; Palaeolithic; Madeleine, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum
Fragment of decorated reindeer metatarsal (bone) engraved on the obverse surface with two reindeer, one of which is now incomplete; decorated bone; Palaeolithic; Madeleine, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum
01172519: Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice, the oldest ceramic figure in the world; On loan from Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno.
Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice, the oldest ceramic figure in the world; On loan from Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno.
33738: Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; 13,000 years old approximately; Montastruc, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum
Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; 13,000 years old approximately; Montastruc, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Were the famous and ancient cave paintings in France an anomalous outburst of creativity or is the need to recreate what we see and imagine something more something inherent in us that's been present for tens of thousands of years?

This exhibition puts forward the case for the latter offering us many examples of artistic creativity from throughout our evolutionary history.

The most telling piece is the oldest - the lion man is a delicate and intricate sculpture. Research highlights that with the tools available at the time, it would have taken 400 hours to carve. This wasn't idle whittling, it was a serious undertaking considering most of our ancestor's time was been spent surviving the harsh weather. The hybridisation of animal and human bears a striking resemblance to the Egyptian god Sekhmet yet pre-dates it by many thousands of years - was this one of the first organised religions?

Some of the works representing bison and Mammoth are skilfully done while the swimming reindeer is exquisite. Most of the works are small and delicate, thus they would have required intense focus and delicacy to execute. But the quality varies throughout the exhibition suggesting that many people of all skill levels tried their hand at sculpting and that creating art is something innate in humanity from when our species first emerged.

The insertion of relatively modern art next to the older sculptures is unnecessary and could have been better left to one room at the end, and some of the claims that random markings were abstract artworks are a little tenuous.

Despite these minor quibbles, this is a fascinating exhibition which does a great job of convincing visitors that the need to create art has always been a part of us and it features some fantastic and remarkably well preserved Ice Age art.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind is on at the British Museum until 26 May. Tickets are £10, concessions available.

Last Updated 11 February 2013

Andrew

Very good indeed. Be sure to read all the text, it's worth it.