The above slideshow was captured from images in a video which can be viewed at http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ice_age_art/about_the_exhibition/the_female_gaze.aspx.
Some scribbled thoughts at the exhibition
The magical atmosphere is almost unbearable. These tiny figurines still have the power to charm (in the old, original meaning of the word) 20,000 or more years after their creation.
People move quietly, staring fixedly at the figures, then making way for each other politely.
It is like being in church – or what being in church should be like if our worship had not been so roughly desacralised.
In contrast, the modern arts (Henry Moore et al) seem almost irrelevant. The 40,000 Years of Modern Art in the basement of the old Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, 50 or so years ago (in a space occupied later for a time by the rock rituals of the Marquee Club, where I first heard Mike Hugg play Ray Charles‘ One Mint Julep) made the connection better.
Or perhaps I was more ethnologically illiterate then.
This visit has changed my life. It will change yours, too.
Some later thoughts
Viewing the reproduction of this image (which is from a poster I actually shot outside the Museum, photography being forbidden in the gallery) , I need to keep reminding myself how TINY it is. These figurines are just a few centimetres high. And yet they embody tremendous power, my awe for which is perhaps conveyed by my scribbled notes published above.
Imagine their creators, scratching away at fragments of mammoth ivory in the light of a flickering oil lamp. For what purpose? I do not believe they had a religious significance, despite their magical resonance. For one reason, they pre-date the time when, long after the ice had retreated, “men began to call upon the Lord”.
There are the remains of a puppet, with jointed arms and legs. A toy, perhaps, or some relic of a primitive toy theatre, to keep the kids quiet during the long Ice Age nights?
Many, but not all, of the figures are obese, with huge, pendulous breasts. Some seem to be pregnant. But others are slimmer, and somehow less erotic for seeming closer in style and shape to the crowds of youngsters from around the world thronging the BM great hall (once, I think, probably the old Reading Room, where Karl Marx coined words to equip the gravediggers of capitalism; I never had a reader’s ticket, so I can’t say for sure).
I am filled with awe at these figures, not because they remind me that once I thought to worship an illusory Earth Goddess, but because they date back to a time when there was no distinction between the sacred and the profane. Life was much more, then, than T.S. Eliot‘s birth, procreation and death. And death was the frame round the picture.
It seems appropriate that they should rebirth me as we move towards the day of Resurrection. Like love, these images will never die. Like all my lovely loves, they will live for ever in my heart.
- Ice Age Art at the British Museum (telegraph.co.uk)
- British Museum showcases ‘spectacular’ Ice Age art (theweek.co.uk)
- British Museum puts art from the Ice Age on show (cnsnews.com)
- ‘Not even Da Vinci surpassed this’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Ice Age Art: Arrival Of The Modern Mind (morningstaronline.co.uk)