Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ice Age Art: Curator's Introduction (or the British Museum is My Valentine)

A lunchtime lecture by Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper, Paleolithic and Mesolithic Material, and Exhibition Curator of Ice Age Art 

February 14, 2013

Valentine’s Day was the perfect day for a trip to the Museum. With my sweetie attending a conference out of town, I was very happy to spend the day with my other true love.

I was there for the curator’s introduction to Ice Age Art, delivered by Exhibition Curator Jill Cook. I knew I was very excited about this lecture, but I never imagined how many other people were, too. The Ice Age, apparently, is hot.  When I arrived in the Great Court prior to the lecture, I  was shocked by the lengthy line at the ticket desk -- I’d never seen it so swamped, and it was 12:30 on a Thursday!  A few moments later, a staff member announced that the exhibit had sold out for the day -- wow!

After a little Valentine’s Day shopping . . .

The book is more funny than sexy, but my Valentine loved it. £3 in the Great Court gift shop.

. . . I ventured down to the BP Lecture Theatre, where I encountered a veritable scrum. There was a sizable ticket-holder’s line (the event was free but ticketed) and a large group of standbys waiting for possible open slots. Eventually, the standbys were shuffled to the theatre next door to watch the lecture on closed circuit TV. Crazy!

Apparently Ice Age Art continues to be popular; as I was writing this, the Museum announced it will open an hour early this weekend to meet demand. Sweet!

Inside the theatre, Jill Cook looked positively delighted.  She began her talk by acknowledging the size of the crowd and noted that she was especially happy the exhibit was “a sell-out” because it is a non-corporate event, sponsored by the Museum, the American Friends of the British Museum (That’s a thing? Can I join?), patrons, and the Henry Moore Foundation. She announced her intent to guide us briefly through the exhibition and advised we could learn more about the themes and artifacts at various Ice Age Art lectures and events in the coming months. Oh, I am so there . . .

Cook started off with a look at a large clay bison sculpture from Tuc d’Audoubert in Ariége France, a replica of which sits outside the Ice Age Art exhibit; the original remains forever in the secluded cave where it was made. Cook joked that she would keep her description of entering the cave short because her mother was in the audience and she didn’t want to upset her. Apparently, one enters the cave through water, climbs into a chimney, and then shimmys through a shaft Cook describes as not much wider than she is. And so the seemingly mild-mannered woman in front of me suddenly looked like Indiana freakin’ Jones.  It was, frankly, hard to imagine her going on such an adventure, and I found the whole thing quite thrilling.

A model of the Tuc d’Audoubert bison sits outside the Ice Age Art exhibition.

Cook explained that no one lived in the cave where this sculpture was found, but people did visit there, and from the footprints they left, we know they danced there (how great is that?). The cave is also filled with beautiful paintings. Perhaps this was a sacred space. There’s just no way to know what, exactly, this cave was used for, but we know it was always tough to reach and was not a place people went every day. Cook then contrasted this hidden art with the “portable” sculptures that are the focus of Ice Age Art: these were items that were crafted out in the sunlight and that people lived with every day.

Cook next turned to the 40,000-year-old Lion Man, one of the most exciting items in the exhibition and one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th Century (which is quite a thing to say). Why is it so important? Because it is a sculpture of something that does not exist; the person who made it had the capacity to imagine a new creature. Furthermore, the sculptor knew a lot about his or her medium -- in this case, a mammoth tusk. The tusk’s bend was used to create the Lion Man’s realistic posture, and the artist took advantage of the tusk’s natural hollow to form the sculpture’s separated legs. An experiment with a modern sculptor using tools like those used in the Ice Age shows that this object took about 400 hours to carve.

An experimental reproduction of the Lion Man 
 by modern sculptor Wulf Hein is on display in Room 2 of the Museum.  

So, we have a sculptor who can imagine something new and intelligently plan a composition, and we have a society that values art enough to give the sculptor time away from survival tasks to create such a thing. This, Cook says, is proof that these people were operating with a well-developed brain and active prefrontal cortex; the modern mind had arrived.

Cook ran briefly through a number of other objects from the exhibition, pointing out the modernity of each. A horse is shown with an exaggeratedly long, curved neck, emphasizing the part we most like to admire and nuzzle. Flutes carved of hollow avian bones show a love of music -- an incredibly important part of modern society -- and the instruments’ variety shows these people understood how to get different sounds out of an instrument by manipulating its size and thickness and through the placement of finger holes. A clay Venus sculpture from 30,000 years ago shows that clay was being used for art thousands of years before the invention of utilitarian pottery.

Cook also briefly discussed the decision to present these prehistoric artifacts alongside modern art. She said that the goal was not to show that Picasso or Matisse were inspired by Ice Age art (though she noted Picasso very much was), but to make the Ice Age pieces more accessible, to provide an entry point for understanding them, and to illustrate that the way we visualize things has not fundamentally changed since the modern mind first developed.

Moving along in time, we hit the point about 20,000 years ago that Cook says she has been “naughty” in calling the Ice Age “renaissance.” After not changing much for many millennia, art suddenly became more sophisticated (this was the time of many of the greatest cave paintings) and, notably, art began to spill over into everyday objects. One particularly fun example is this spear thrower that was carved into a lovely little caricature of a mammoth.

She touched on the Swimming Reindeer -- a perennial favorite from the Museum's permanent collection -- and said the existence of something so beautiful and labor-intensive with no apparent practical purpose hints at a rich oral history that is forever lost to us and about which we can only guess. She discussed very small sculptures, many only a fraction the size of one’s palm, that have been found deliberately pressed into the crevices of rock walls and suggests that whoever placed it there may have been engaging in his or her era’s version of lighting a candle to find hope or courage. She concluded by noting the courage involved in bringing the exhibition together, thanked us for coming, and opened the floor to questions.

Now, asking questions in front of a large audience terrifies me, but I was determined to ask Cook to comment on my observation that the women in the exhibition were very abstract while the animals were very realistic. So, after letting a few brave fellow lecture-goers go first, I finally screwed up the courage to raise my hand . . . only to have Cook disagree with the very premise of my question. She asked if I’d actually been through the exhibit yet (Um, yes? *gulp*), and then said she thought there was plenty of realism and abstraction all around with female sculptures so realistic that you could tell they were in the process of giving birth and animals reduced down to their most basic lines. Oh, OK . . .

I was momentarily embarrassed (like I said, this was hard for me!), but then the next person actually asked if Ice Age people had a written language, so my question suddenly felt brilliant by comparison. And I guess I’ll be going through the exhibit again with the specific aim of finding more realistic ladies. Oh, darn . . .

This was the first of what I hope will be many Ice Age Art lectures and activities that I will attend during the run of the show. The very next day, in fact, I attended a 3-hour workshop on archaeological drawing, using gorgeous casts of items from the exhibition as models. Maybe I’ll write that up next, or maybe I’ll go back to Ur and Woolley for a post or two. What gets your vote??

Like the sound of this lecture? The Ice Age Art Curator’s Introduction will be repeated on Saturday, March 16. Book now to claim your seat. And, of course, you should go see the exhibit itself -- click here to buy tickets online (the website now says “advanced booking essential”). Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind runs through May 26.    

1 comment:

Ann Hall said...

I'm so torn - Ur or Ice Age??? I am fascinated by the sculpture left in the inaccessible cave. Did she talk about how people accessed it back then? I mean, was the water level lower or something, so they could walk in?

I am so enjoying your adventures at the Museum!