Ice Age Art, arrival of the modern mind

Early Bronze Age Ivory sculptures H.5.2cm and 6.5cm. Nebra, Unstrut Valley, Germany

Ice Age Art, arrival of the modern mind. 7 February to 26 May 2013

Arguably one of the best exhibitions the British Museum has put together!
At the end of February I attended a series of lectures relating to this exhibition. Nicholas Conard, Director of the Centre for Scientific Archaeology in Tübingen, Germany, spoke on the origins of art and music. Though I find his research and ideas fascinating, it is hard to accept that the origins of art evolved solely from this small area in Germany about 40,000 years ago. For all sorts of reasons, not least that art in Australia is purported to be equally as old, I think it much more likely that modern humans had minds capable of making art before they migrated out of Africa into Europe. Other lectures included the history of reconstructing the oldest sculpture found to date, The Lion Man, a Palaeolithic figure from Stadel Cave in Germany and archaeological work being undertaken at Grotte Chauvet, all of which were interesting and helped give context to the exhibition.

However it was the work in the exhibition itself that was the real treat of the day. Although most of us are very familiar with images of the great painted caves, representations of the sculpture of Palaeolithic Europe are less well-known. What one is not prepared for is the scale, the detail of the drawn elements and the sheer beauty and sensuality of the abstraction in many of the pieces. With few exceptions most of this work is of a scale to be held in the hand or even the fingertips and yet it still has a monumentality of scale. One cannot help but reflect on Picasso’s comment on Palaeolithic art that ‘we have learnt nothing at all.’ In any event I am sure that there is still plenty that can inspire us in these beautiful objects and the understanding it gives on our artistic inheritance.

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