Issue Number: 117
An exhibition of Ice Age art at the British Museum reveals the imagination and skills of Europe's earliest artists, writes Andrew Marr
The Lion Man, found in 1939 in a cave in Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany, is around 40,000 years old. Photo courtesy of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, Regional Direction for Cultural Affairs, Rhone-Alpes Region, Regional department of Archaeology. He dangles, with liquid limbs, one arm cocked, but where the human head should be there is… something else. The Lion Man is carved of mammoth ivory, and was made some 40,000 years ago in Germany. When a modern ivory carver tried to reproduce it, it took over 400 hours. This is evidence of fully modern humanity, with our boiling cerebral cortex and our ability to imagine. It also suggests, of course, a culture that is prepared to give someone 400 hours off – not hunting, not gathering, not nurturing or sewing – to make such a thing.
So if we ask, when was the first great age of European art, we can forget Minoans, Etruscans or the Middle Ages: a new show at the British Museum makes a compelling case for the Ice Age – that is, the 30,000-year period running through the final part of the last Ice Age, and ending around 10,000 years ago.
For some people, this is obvious. Picasso kept a couple of models of the bulbous female figure found in the foothills of the Pyrenees and known as the Venus of Lespugue. As Jill Cook, curator of ‘Ice Age Art’, points out, the abstraction of form is at a level on a par with Cubism. The exhibition is full of carvings and drawings of similar quality, brought from France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Russia. There are flutes of vulture bone; aurochs on discs which, when spun seem to grow and move; a terrifying, spectre-headed puppet from Brno, and flying-swan pendants found at Siberia’s Lake Baikal. And, of course, the Lion Man, the replica of which is on display while the original is being newly conserved with additional pieces found in recent excavations.
Everyone knows, of course, the world-famous cave paintings from Lascaux and other sites in southern France and northern Spain, which will be represented in London by a multimedia installation. This will give visitors the feel of what it is like to be deep in a cave with paintings illuminated by burning torches, reproducing the atmosphere of the original caves. How can this not be great European art?
A carving of a mammoth, part of an antler spear-thrower, found at Montastruc, France, thought to be 12,500 years old. © The trustees of the British Museum. Photo Karl-Heinz Augustin/© Ulmer Museum. Yet for many people all this, however skilled, is mentally filed as archaeology, or early human culture, or part of the history of religion – pretty objects to be studied in relation to shamanism, or as part of the complex tale of different Cro-Magnon cultures. Anything, in short, other than ‘art’. Or, if it must be art, let us file it as ‘folk art’, that patronizing, purring put-down from which there’s no appeal. Art, after all, presupposes conscious artists.
As an archaeologist, however, who has spent years conducting microscopic studies on some of the thousands of drawings which survive from the Ice Age, Jill Cook is sure she can see evidence of ‘the hand’ of individual artists with their individual styles. She is even convinced by a colleague in Toulouse, Professor Carole Fritz, that there is evidence of apprentices learning their craft, making mistakes and getting better.
This is not the only way in which this show promises to challenge settled ideas. Cook also argues that at least some Ice Age humans were semi-settled in communities, which were big enough to allow specialisation, including the work of artists. This is normally taken to start only after the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, 10,000 years ago.
Images of paintings from the Chauvet Cave insouthern France, thought to be 32,000-35,000 years old, feature in an installation at ‘Ice Age Art’. We cannot quite reimagine the world of these first European artists, though we must assume that the very fine drawing found on cave walls and pieces of bone would have been matched by decorated skins and clothing; this may well have been a far more colourful world than we used to think. It was created, says Cook, by the unfamiliar landscape, animals and indeed people – the Neanderthals – which the new migrants, moving north through the Danube valley, first came across. ‘These are the external stimuli which produce the art.’
It came to an end, finally, when the climate changed. The ice retreated north. With it went the larger mammals – the aurochs, woolly rhinos, mammoths and musk oxen. In came the red deer and roe deer. They may have been plentiful but you got much more meat from a mammoth; perhaps hunting took up more time, and edged aside the artistry. Or perhaps humans turned to stories, music and other art forms that have not survived. We cannot know.
What we can know, and see, is that conscious, careful art – drawing, observation, imagination (hand, eye and heart) were there from the beginning. And the drawing, by the way, is arguably just as skilled as that of a Rembrandt or young Picasso.