Visiting the exhibition Ice Age art arrival of the modern mind for the first time in February, I was amazed by the incredible works I was looking at. Since then I have visited the British Museum many times to look again in awe at these extraordinary pieces of sculpture and early examples of drawing.
Modern man arrived in Europe 40,000 years ago, and the masterpieces dating from this time are sophisticated images and objects, showing how the modern mind was capable of conceptualising the essence of the human form and animal. The craftsmen demonstrate an incredible skill when sculpting these small, hand-held objects in view of the tools that were being used. These early artists and craftsmen show us that the basic human need to create, in making art and beautiful objects, seemingly non-functional has always been present. Whatever cultural meaning these artworks had within the community, early men and women expressed themselves creatively leaving us such exquisite works.
During the exhibition I attended lectures and discussions given by the curator Jill Cook and artist Grayson Perry keen to understand more about the practice of these early artists. We see an enormous confidence and artistry in the making of these pieces. Tremendous observational skills along with an understanding of the structure of the materials being used result in amazing objects both emotional and beautiful.
This sculpture of a woman, carved from mammoth ivory and dating from 23,000 years ago is the first piece you see when entering the exhibition. To our eyes, she looks strikingly modern. Her voluptuous curves, sagging breasts and enlarged hips and buttocks show an abstraction of form, and taking the geometry of the figure and re-building it as we see in the art of Matisse. Two replicas of this figure were found in Picasso’s studio cabinet.
When making drawings from a number of these sculptures it was interesting to observe how my own hand followed and traced the rhythmic and linear curves of these beautiful forms, repeatedly moving around and over each contour.
Drawing during the Ice Age took the form of engraving on bone, antler, stone or ivory, using the same techniques and concepts as a contemporary engraver. Animals and humans are depicted using a vocabulary of mark-making we see today, delicate flowing and rhythmic lines demonstrate a relaxed fluency of a well-practiced craftsman. There is a delicacy and precision of mark describing moving animals, man or intricate pattern-making.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is this exquisite sculpture of a bison, perfectly scaled down and acutely observed from nature. The patina of age and the damage throughout the millennia only add to the beauty of this sculpture.