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Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind - British Museum

Female figure sculpture, about 20,000 years old.

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind will be on display at the British Museum (Room 35) from February 7 to May 26, 2013.

This unique exhibition will present masterpieces of Ice Age sculpture, ceramics, drawing and personal ornaments from across Europe together for the first time in the UK.

These will include the oldest known ceramic figures in the world, as well as the oldest known portrait and figurative pieces, all of which were created over 20,000 years ago. These striking objects will be presented as art rather than archaeological finds and will enable visitors to see the meaning of art made long ago by people with developed brains like our own.

Jill Cook, Curator of the exhibition, said:

“All art is the product of the remarkable structure and organisation of the modern brain. By looking at the oldest European sculptures and drawings we are looking at the deep history of how our brains began to store, transform and communicate ideas as visual images. The exhibition will show that we can recognize and appreciate these images. Even if their messages and intentions are lost to us the skill and artistry will still astonish the viewer.”

Through archaeological evidence from Southern Africa, we can ascertain that the modern brain emerged just over 100,000 years ago with the appearance of art and complex behaviour patterns. This exhibition will demonstrate how the creators of the work on display had brains that had the capacity to express themselves symbolically through art and music.

The opening section of the exhibition will establish the period of the last Ice Age, concentrating on how 40,000 years ago fully modern humans spread into Europe from Africa.

New stimuli such as encounters with the indigenous population of Neanderthal people and the rigors of the cold climate at this time enabled their imaginations to flourish; this resulted in the production of remarkable works of art, such as the famous painted caves in Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira, as well as lesser known pieces made from stone, bone, antler and ivory.

Figurative art appeared for the first time in human history in Europe at this time, and the second section of the exhibition will be dedicated to some of the oldest figurative paintings and sculptures.

One of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition includes a 23,000 year old mammoth ivory sculpture of an ‘abstract’ figure from Lespugue, France. Picasso was so fascinated with this ‘cubist’ piece that he kept two copies of it. This figure demonstrates a visual brain capable of abstraction, the essential quality needed to acquire and manipulate knowledge which underpins our ability to analyse what we see.

Section three of the exhibition will look specifically at the female figure. Between 28,000 and 21,000 years ago the female form was a constant theme in art. These extraordinary sculptures in ivory, stone and baked clay represent women of all ages with great naturalism and detail, including depictions of pregnancy, childbirth and obesity.

It is through these varied depictions that we can ascertain what sort of status women had in these hunter-gatherer societies; the fact that they focus on pregnancy, giving birth and getting old suggests that these figures are not necessarily erotica, but images made for women, potentially by women.

Highlights in this section will include a 26,000 year old baked clay figure of a woman from the Brno region of the Czech Republic which is one of the oldest ceramic figures in the world.

Ideas of creativity and expression have remained remarkably similar across thousands of years. The final section of the exhibition will attempt to lift the time barrier so we can see these objects as the earliest expression of European art history and discover new ways of appreciating them.

Works by major modern artists including Picasso, Henry Moore and Matisse will be included to establish these connections across time, highlighting the fundamental human desire to create works of great beauty. This can be appreciated in a striking drawing of two deer engraved on a piece of bone found in the cave of Le Chaffaud, Vienne, France.

Just as a modern artist would decide on the colour, size and texture of the paper, wood, lino or glass to use for best effect, the Ice Age artist selected a piece of bone for the drawing. The deer are well composed within the space and positioned with considered perspective so that they appear to be standing side by side with one slightly behind the other.

It was not a sketch for another larger work, it was meant to be viewed in its own right like any modern drawing. The medium may be different but the creative brain which produced it is the same.

The drawings, sculpture and decorated hunting equipment in the show will reveal the natural world of people, from Britain in the west to Siberia in east. They also display a variety of ways of encapsulating movement which are the precursors of modern animation and cinema.

This theme is further explored in an installation bringing the extraordinary artistry of the great painted caves such as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira into the museum, to provide a feel for the surreal experience of viewing paintings deep underground in the flickering light of burning torches and fat lamps.

The exhibition has been supported by Betsy and Jack Ryan, The Henry Moore Foundation, the Patrons of the British Museum, and the American Friends of the British Museum.

Tickets: £10 (concessions available). Tickets can be booked online at or by phone on 020 7323 8181.

Times: Saturday to Thursday 10am to 5.30pm, Fridays 10am to 8.30pm.

The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG