Ice Age art: Arrival of the modern Mind

Our tiny little blue dot, floating silently in the vast, cold and barren expanses of space, is a little over 4.5 billion years old. In its early, formative period, it was most unsuitable for living organisms. Geographically, things were extremely brutal, while an army of meteorites bombarded the planet with fiery malevolence.
Then the planet began to cool and thus was laid the foundation of the earth. It must have been something special, a time when the “morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy”, as Job explained quite wonderfully.
Less than a billion years after Earth came into being, she breathed the first tiny drops of life into her great expanse. And then, millions and millions of years later, what started off as single-celled prokaryotic cells, through the labyrinthine and chaotic nature of evolution, resulted in us, homo sapiens.
We were, 200,000 years ago, quite primitive, animalistic even. And then there was the dawn of man, a sudden illumination befalling humanity when words didn’t exist. What magic triggered this sudden spark of consciousness, we will never know. Stanley Kubrick’s black monolith as an answer, abstract and alien, more than suffices as a reason.
Beyond this everything changed. Man became sentient and ever since then, it has never been enough to just exist, to live and die and see the world for what it really is. Je pense, donc je suis, René Descartes observed. Man started to believe in the transcendental and, through the blossoming of culture, began to distinguish himself from animals. Man was always destined for greatness is now the prevailing ideology.
This deep history underscores Ice Age Art: The Arrival of the Modern Mind at the British Museum. Coming with the tagline “an exhibition 40,000 in the making”, this show revels in the artistic achievements of our ancestors, who, regardless of the challenging environment they lived in, found it necessary to engage in culture. To make art was “to be”.
It is revealing to take what we call archaeological finds and organise them as examples of art. The masters behind of these quite astonishing objects were skilful, thoughtful and creative individuals. They may not have been able to fully conceive of the artistic merit of what it was they were doing, but then, who needs that? Aesthetically they are divine and sometimes – more often than not perhaps – that is all that is needed. Art criticism and intellectual investigation has never been universal.
Needless to say, as can be derived from Lion Man – considered to be the oldest sculpture in the world (40,000 years old) – human thinking at this time was very modern indeed.
While the object on display at the museum is a replica – new pieces have been found warranting further investigation into it – we nevertheless get to experience early human originality in its earliest conception.
“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,” explained the British Museum.
“This resulted in the production of remarkable works of art, such as the famous painted caves in as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira, as well as lesser known pieces made from stone, bone, antler and ivory.”
A perfect example of this is an abstract work – abstract as can only be understood post modernism – was discovered in Lespunge, France. It is over 23,000 years old and nothing about it is archaic; it could easily be a product of the twentieth century avant-garde. It is almost impossible to accept that it was made during the last Ice Age.
“All art is the product of the remarkable structure and organisation of the modern brain,” says Jill Cook, curator of the show.
“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.”
Cadogan Tate’s professional art handlers deliver expert storage and moving solutions.