Why and how art was suddenly born 40,000 years ago in Europe

Colin Renfrew on “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind”, the British Museum, London, until 26 May


Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel ©Graeme Robertson

Art was born suddenly, about 40,000 years ago, in the Ice Age of Europe. That art could be so old was not indeed realised until 1879, when the cave paintings of bison at Altamira in North Spain were first recognised and authenticated. The cave paintings of France and Spain can only be visited there, at the famous sites like Lascaux (in the Dordogne) and Altamira. But the remarkable small carvings on bone or ivory which are found in such caves, often of animals or the celebrated “Venus” figurines of nude women, are more portable, and they have been found more widely . A wonderful selection of these from the museums of Europe is now on show at the British Museum, in the exhibition “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind”.

It is now well established that our species, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa some 200,000 years ago, and that the out-of-Africa expansion of humankind leading eventually to the population of the world, began in earnest some 60,000 years ago. And although there are some remains of Ice Age art in Australia, and just a few in Africa, it was in Europe that the “creative explosion” took place, shortly after 40,000 years ago, generating these vivid carvings and engravings on stone and bone, and the painted caves with their lively colourful depictions of horses and bison, reindeer and lions. The carvings are found in caves, rock shelters and open air sites from Spain and France, right across Central and Eastern Europe as far as Siberia. From Moravia, in the Czech Republic, come the earliest known sculptures of baked clay. For the first time in Britain a wonderful selection of original pieces, curated by Jill Cook of the British Museum, has been brought together from the major museums of France, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic and beyond. They are to be seen in the British Museum’s Special Exhibition Gallery in the Great Court, just above the Reading Room. Why the “modern mind” first showed its hand in Europe at this early time, rather than in Africa where it originated, remains to be explained. But the rich and intriguing evidence is here to see.

These are small objects, few larger than a foot in height, but here, perhaps for the first time in human history, are brought together so many of the greatest masterpieces of sculpture from those 300 centuries of the Old Stone Age, which ended ten millennia ago with the onset of warmer climatic conditions. The very first object on view, the Venus of Lespugue, a curvaceous nude statuette of mammoth ivory, just 6 inches tall, with wonderfully convex echoing forms of breasts, buttocks and abdomen was justly admired by Picasso. One sees at once, as he did, that the stone age sculptor of 25,000 years ago was fascinated by these repeated volumes as he shaped them from a tusk of ivory.

For the specialist this is a wonderful opportunity to see so many of these treasures gathered together in one place, although it is odd that that Spain, where cave art was first recongised, is not represented at all in the exhibition. The display is supplemented by some Modernist drawings, illustrating how the “modern mind” of the Ice Age inspired them. One reproach, however: where one splendid piece, the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel in south Germany is represented by a replica, this circumstance is indicated only by a tiny note invisible from the front of the display case. At the exhibition preview I spent a happy 15 minutes admiring the Lion-Man in the company of our country’s foremost naturalist and television communicator. So I was astonished to learn a week later from a member of the museum staff that this was not the original piece but a high-grade replica. On a second visit I scrutinised all available labels and then learnt that the original was still in the museum in Ulm (where two recently recognised fragments are being added). This should have been made clear at the outset. But that was a minor disappointment in the presence of the concentrated assemblage of ancient masterpieces exhibited here, whose immediacy and freshness of vision bridges the centuries with consummate ease.

The accompanying publication (British Museum Press, £25 hb) by Jill Cook is richly illustrated, and features some famous pieces (such as the Venus of Willendorf) which are not included in the exhibition. Those that are combine to offer an unrivalled experience which is unlikely to be repeated in our time.

Colin Renfrew is an archaeologist and a Senior Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 08:18:00 GMT

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