People hovering at all available edges of the display cases, courteous glances and awkward shuffles to make your way round the masterpieces on offer, while the cold minimalist atmosphere that has been created to view the pieces at their best is immediately destroyed by the mass of bodies. Sound like every other blockbuster art show in town? Maybe.
But the art on offer at the British Museum’s Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind exhibition, dating from between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago is truly ground-breaking. For instance, here you get to see the oldest known portrait of a woman (above), a woman who lived 27,000 years ago in the Czech Republic. It has been created by someone who spent time, energy and resources carving the image complete with sculpted hair (or headdress) and dimpled chin. Contrary to how pre-historic people are often defined – as ‘hunter gatherers’ – here is someone who already knew that there was more to life than their day job and more to life than eating, sleeping and procreating and has chosen to create something instead.
Alongside the sculpted head of the woman mentioned above, two other pieces from the Czech Republic stand out: An engraved mammoth tusk depicting complex geometric shapes; and a ‘doll or puppet’ found in an isolated grave (above). These were also made about 27,000 years ago.
Apart from reawakening my desire to learn Czech (over and above ‘Jedno pivo, prosim’) it also made me want to know what the area that now makes up the Czech Republic was like at that time. Maybe there’s not much evidence for this which is why minimalist contexts were chosen, but it conjures up wider questions – what was the European landscape like at that time, was it green or desolate? Was it full of trees or grasses? What were people doing other than making art? What/how/where were they hunting?
These questions were alluded to at times in the exhibition but I guess what I really wanted to know was where did these pieces of art come from; something amazing was happening and people had started making objects that today we recognise as ‘art’, but instead of exploring the context of the arrival of this modern mind I came away feeling like I’d just been to a very nice exhibition at the Tate Modern.
I assume exhibiting the pieces as if in a modern art gallery was what the intention was and so they have succeeded in this, but it’s thanks to the quality of the objects on show that I’m sure to be returning for a second look and maybe some more of my questions will be answered then.
Until 2 June 2013