As you turn the corner in the British Museum’s Reading Room gallery, you find yourself face to face with a bison. Ambling towards you, her head drifting to one side, she has come more than 2,500 kilometres, from Zaraysk in Russia – and it has taken her more than 20,000 years to get here. Although she is only 10cm tall and made of mammoth ivory, she is so full of life that she short-circuits our day and hers, eight million days apart, into a single moment. We can’t travel back to the Ice Age, but if we could, this is surely what it would feel like.
The prehistoric Eurasian artworks concentrated in the BM’s exhibition Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind are all small but intensely powerful. One of the smallest pieces, just an inch high, is of a figure with a human-like body and a lion-like head. More than 30,000 years old, it illustrates how the impulse to create forms that do not exist in nature is present in some of the earliest known figurative art. Another “lion-man” figure – exhibited here in replica because newly found fragments are painstakingly being incorporated into the original – may be 40,000 years old. A flute made from a vulture’s wingbone is of similar age, affirming that figurative art and musical instruments accompanied each other as far back as we so far know.
These objects were all found in the Swabian Alb region of southern Germany, towards the western end of the arc that the exhibition casts from France to Siberia. Its reach in time is even more sweeping: not many art exhibitions cover a span of 30,000 years. The show’s curator, British Museum archaeologist Jill Cook, doesn’t care to draw distinctions between “prehistoric” art and more recent works. For her, this is about the “deep history of art”, which affirms a fundamental human unity. We don’t know what was going on in the minds of the people who made these images, but we can see instantly that their minds were modern, that as Cook puts it, “This is not others, this is us.”
Much of these works’ power is generated by the conviction that, yes, this really is us, and the question: “But what were we thinking?” Cook has wisely prevented the questions from being submerged, as they so often are in this field, by inevitably unsatisfactory answers. One of the star exhibits is a figurine of a woman, probably between 27,000 and 31,000 years old, found at Dolni Vestonice in what is now the Czech Republic. In some respects she is readily recognisable. “This lady has done her childbearing,” Cook observes. “She has large drooping breasts from nurturing children, and she is still carrying a bit of the weight that you fail to lose after having babies.” The form of the head, covered with what looks to some eyes like a visor, is harder to interpret. “Is she a real woman? Is she a spirit woman? We simply don’t know,” says Cook.
“But we do know this is the oldest known ceramic figure in the world. Before they bothered making pots and pans, they used ceramics for art.” Why did Ice Age people invest in culture, putting social tools before practical ones? Aesthetic activities were nothing new: in southern Africa modern humans with modern minds had been engraving shells and adorning themselves with beads tens of thousands of years before. Why did figurative art emerge where and when it did? Cook permits herself to speculate that people whose numbers had multiplied thanks to a benign climate and ample supplies of bison meat were forced to develop new, more intense forms of co-operation as the ice advanced upon them. Art helped them “to have ideas in common”.
In the absence of knowledge about what those ideas were, interpreters have elaborated their own theories according to their favoured views of human nature. As Cook points out, Ice Age art displays “a very strong interest in the female body”, particularly in the period from 30,000 to 20,000 years ago; and that has inevitably attracted projection from the present, with researchers feeding headlines about “prehistoric porn”. Cook points out the great variety of female forms created by Ice Age artists, from the well-known obese figures to slim youthful ones, and stylised outlines that are juxtaposed in the exhibition with 20th-century works by George Brassaï. The boldness with which some of those artists modified the human form is breathtaking. No wonder Picasso owned casts of the celebrated mammoth-ivory figure found at Lespugue in France.
“It could be that they’re made by women for women, in so far as they reflect women’s rites of passage – the changes of the body from youth through maternity into middle age,” Cook says. “Equally they could be the product of the male gaze – but they’re not erotic; they’re not giving anyone the come-on.” Nevertheless, the tag on a reproduction Lespugue figure in the gift shop insists that the “Venus” is “beautifully erotic”.
The other great theme in Ice Age art is animals, and the naturalism with which they are depicted makes them present to us in a way that is almost uncanny. Looking at two deer carved on a piece of bone, probably about 13,000 years ago, Cook points out the confidence of the line, the sense of landscape and the suggestion of water. She infers the animals’ state of mind from their stance: “They’re alert; they’re just thinking ‘shall we have a drink? Shall we cross? Is there anybody about here?’
“All of the key concepts of drawing, and the techniques, are in that drawing. Nothing has changed since then.”
Her passionate exposition is persuasive – but it is the artworks themselves that convince, instantly and transfixingly. I had pored over the catalogue images in advance, with immense anticipation, but in the actual presence of pieces such as the Zaraysk bison and the Lespugue figure I feel that I had only seen muted shadows before. These revelations are like what I experienced when I first stood at arm’s length from a cave painting, I tell her.
It turns out that this is just what she intended. “I think that’s almost the best compliment that you can pay this exhibition,” she says. “I had that sensation too, when I first went into a cave and saw this art. I always felt that in doing this show, the most important thing was to try and convey that tingle.”
Until May 26, www.britishmuseum.org