Ice Age Art

Exhibition at the British Museum Summer 2013

One of my early childhood memories is of a waste paper basket at my grandmother’s house which appealed to me because it was decorated with beautiful horses. As I later learned, the horses adorning this singular receptacle were faithful copies from the cave paintings at Lascaux. These paintings and similar ones from caves at Chauvet and Altamira are justly famous, but somewhat less well known is the portable art which was also produced in Ice Age Europe. The new exhibition at the British Museum Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, while not neglecting the cave art, concentrates on the latter.

On display is a range of artefacts, mostly small and fragile, from across Europe. What I think strikes everybody who sees them is the sheer quality of these pieces, the purity of execution. This is particularly true of the representations of animals incised onto bone or ivory. These must have been laboriously scratched or gouged out, but look as though they could have been drawn with a few pen strokes.

The works represented come from a wide geographical area, extending from Western Europe to Siberia, and cover a huge span of time – 30,000 years. Styles did change over that period, but only very slowly. In addition to the astonishing representations of wildlife, we see more or less stylised representations of the human form, including the famous so-called ‘Venus’ figures of large or pregnant women, and a few anthropomorphic or chimerical figures, like the famous ‘lion man’, which is placed near the entrance to the exhibition.

Why did people living in such difficult conditions go to all that trouble? There are sophisticated theories, which you can read about on the walls as you go through the exhibition. They draw on modern research in various disciplines, including anthropology and neuroscience. In short, if I understand it rightly, the modern view is that art, like language, is at once a means of perceiving and of communicating. It depends, like language, on our minds’ capacity for abstraction and metaphor and it developed in response to the increasingly complex demands of our ancestors’ social, rather than physical, environment. To help illustrate this point, there are some modern works scattered among the ancient artefacts (so be warned).

Although there is much in these ideas that feels right, I am still left with a question. To sum up what preoccupied all of these Ice Age artists, I can do no better than use the word quality. No doubt, as the theories suggest, these pieces served a social function. Perhaps vanity and egoism also played their parts – the ambition to carve a better bison than the other fellow. But so did service; these people were working in a tradition – a very long-lived one – for the sake of something.

Felix Dux

The exhibition continues until 26 May. For ticket prices and opening times, click here. Advance booking is essential.