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Ice Age Art

British Museum: 7 February to 26 May 2013

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The oldest known ceramic figure.

The oldest known ceramic figure. Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic Dates from between 31,000 and 27,000 years ago.

© Laura Porter, licensed to About.com, Inc.

An incredible collection of artworks from the last Ice Age have been brought together from across Europe for this exhibition in Room 35 at the British Museum. These pieces were created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. Through this art, Ice Age communities tried to understand themselves and their place in the world, just as we do today.

Study of Ice Age sculpture, drawing and painting has revealed that Ice Age artists had the same modern visual brain as our own. Even though these pieces are so old we can recognize the forms and subjects and can appreciate the skill involved in production.

The Exhibition

The British Museum is responding to what the public wanted to see as there was great interest from the History of the World in 80 Objects, a BBC and British Museum partnership.

The first object you see is at least 23,000 years old and is made of mammoth ivory yet it looks like it could have been created by Picasso or possibly Henry Moore. Indeed Picasso was fascinated with this figure as it is the oldest known ceramic figure in the world.

The rest of the exhibition is in chronological order.

© Laura Porter, licensed to About.com, Inc.

45,000 Years Ago
Modern humans arrived in Europe around 45,000 years ago and Europe's oldest artworks date from around 40,000 years ago.

To prove the skill of the Ice Age 'artist' an experiment to make a replica of a piece called 'Lion Man' using stone tools on ivory took 400 hours and is on display in Room 2. Beyond any doubt this proves the skill and dedication of the Ice Age 'artist' and the desire to make things that looked beautiful and were not just functional.

By about 13,000 years ago art even reached Britain which was uninhabitable during the colder months. There are displays of patterns on jewelry which clearly had greater significance for the wearer than just decorative patterns. It might have been for social status or for personal identity, or to openly display religious or spiritual beliefs.

There are no cave paintings on the walls although there is a very dark video room to go through which hopes to bring to life the flickering light of burning torches and fat lamps to see great cave paintings such as those at Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira. (It is exceedingly dark so do ask for assistance from museum staff if you wish to avoid this section.)

Sex or symbol?
Female figures were a frequent subject throughout the Ice Age but not the perfect 10 (UK), or size 0, or whatever the catwalk models aspire to be these days. The admired and revered female form was that of a woman with wide hips which would presumably symbolize excellent child-bearing qualities. Large dropping breasts and the heavy hips of a woman who has had children is the respected shape and there is a wonderful collection of breasts that could be threaded onto a necklace which would clearly let the world know what you appreciate.

© Laura Porter, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the later part of the Ice Age, the shapes were more abstract as seen in modern art and the curator has chosen to display these ancient objects alongside modern works by artists such Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Henry Moore. Why did the Museum decide to incorporate modern artworks? The exhibition curator, Jill Cook, explained that these Ice Age objects were produced by skilled practitioners – who we can surely call artists – and the concepts and techniques haven't changed.

When you visit the exhibition you can ask yourself the question: Is this art? And you can try to decide what it is if you think it is not. Were these objects all for status or symbols of power? Or did the people of the Ice Age enjoy objects of beauty as much as we do today. Certainly, sculpting a spear, made from a reindeer antler, would increase speed and force which was practical but decorating the spear handle would have been a time-consuming task and unnecessary if the design was not later enjoyed. Or was it just to identify ownership later? Whatever you decide this is a thought-provoking exhibition and worth a visit.

Disclaimer: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary preview of the exhibition for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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