British Museum puts art from the Ice Age on show

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 5, 2013 at 11:03 am •  Published: February 5, 2013

And yet, as art, they are instantly recognizable and remarkably sophisticated.

They play with ideas like perspective and scale, toy with abstraction and capture movement. Some of the animals show strength and grace: a delicate yet powerful bison, a mammoth poised to charge, a delicate carving of two reindeer swimming.

Ice Age artists could depict imaginary creatures, such as the man with a lion's head found in a cave in Germany and created 40,000 years ago. They made musical instruments; there are flutes carved from swan bones and ivory.

The works are displayed alongside pieces by modern artists, including Henri Matisse — whose drawing of a voluptuous nude hangs near a plump female ceramic figure — and Henry Moore, whose rounded abstract sculptures can appear timeless and elemental.

Cook said the modern works are there partly to reassure visitors that this is an exhibition of art and not just archaeological artifacts — "You can look at them without being intimidated."

There is also a more direct link. Some 20th-century modernists drew inspiration from the bold abstraction of ancient artworks. Picasso was fascinated with a 21,000-year-old ivory sculpture of a naked woman found in southwestern France in 1922 and kept replicas of it in his studio.

Despite the strong resonances, there remains much we don't know about the distant past.

The exhibition includes many depictions of female figures, from girlish youths to pregnant women to mature matrons. Were they carved by men or, as Cook speculates, created "by women for women"? Many are realistic about large hips and bellies, and show an image of the female body Cook likens to the "does my bum look big in this" view in the dressing room mirror.

There's also a 27,000-year-old puppet discovered in what is now the Czech Republic — possibly used in some shamanistic ritual, though it's hard to be certain. Tools and cave walls were inscribed with a form of calligraphy which we can't read.

And while Cook says these pieces are, "as far as we know, the oldest figurative art in the world," many ancient mysteries remain.

"Discoveries tomorrow might change that," she said. "And that would be fantastic."

"Ice Age Art" opens Thursday and runs to May 26.