A recent exhibition at the British Museum entitled Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, brought together an extraordinary collection of early human artworks, dating back as far as 40,000 years. The broad thesis of the exhibition was indicated by its subtitle: an attempt to locate and contextualise the point at which our sophisticated artistic ability, and hence “the modern mind”, first emerged. Having migrated from Africa into Europe some 40,000 years ago, and finding themselves caught in the grip of an ice age, Homo Sapiens began producing complex and subtle artworks – the product of modern minds, not unlike ours. The exhibition explored questions such as what caused this to happen, and what was the purpose of this form of expression.
One thing that is immediately striking about ice-age art is the contrast between depictions of people and animals. Whilst the animals are depicted with incredible attention to detail and a faithfulness that is manifested either through expressive dynamism or accurate realism, humans are depicted in a highly abstracted way. Consider the bulging, drooping, hugely overweight female figures, whose bodies seem to be a grotesque exaggeration of the female form.
Many have long assumed that the attention to detail with the animal figures is linked to hunting rituals – that depicting the animals in this manner somehow gave the artist power over these creatures. The images potentially represent a mix of love, respect and awe for creatures who could both feed and kill one in this wild world. The figures of the females, on the other hand, have traditionally been seen as fertility symbols – exaggerations of the female form to emphasise child-bearing attributes.
Yet these are big assumptions about the mindset and purpose of artists in a time so utterly remote – long predating cities, towns, agriculture and writing – that we must be very cautious before showing any confidence in our conclusions. After all, we don’t know if the artists were men or women, nor how the art was used or viewed. Were the female figures considered erotic or motherly, both or otherwise? There is one rare exception to this rule – a female head carved from mammoth ivory which has rather grandiosely been called the first true portrait of a woman for its somewhat quirky appearance, which gives it more individuality than the otherwise generic, simplified features or featureless heads on female statuettes.
In an attempt to draw links between and to juxtapose these ancient cultures with the modern, the exhibition placed works by modern artists alongside the ancient – a sculpture by Henry Moore, a drawing by Mondrian, among others. Many reviewers were critical of this attempt to show how the ancient resonated in the modern, dismissing it as a distraction which only served to confuse by not giving the viewer sufficient room in which to forget their own culture and mindset and try to imagine one that was, in all likelihood, utterly different to that which produced these modern works.
Irrespective of this somewhat misguided pairing of old and new, the sheer peculiarity, quality and antiquity of the ice-age objects speaks for itself. The Lion Man, a carved ivory statuette which depicts a human figure with a lion’s head, found in fragments in a German cave and reconstructed, is dated at roughly 40,000 years old.
As one author put it, it reeks of “dreams, terror, magical rites and myths.” The “Venus of Lespugue”, a 23,000 year-old female figurine with grotesquely pronounced thighs, buttocks and breasts, was also featured here.
That it long fascinated Picasso might lend some sense to the presence of the modern works here, yet really, it says nothing about the ancient world which produced it. Again, we are left with mere speculation as to its purpose and production, and our best guesses, logical as they may seem, must remain circumspect.
Art Historian, Professor David Lewis Williams, a major contributor to this field, has long argued that Palaeolithic Homo Sapiens “could only engage in image-making upon developing “fully modern consciousness.” He argues that cave art was a by-product of religious belief, which played a role in establishing and sustaining social hierarchies. He views the production of cave art as some kind of Shamanic ritual, perhaps even undertaken in an altered state. As much as we might find certain parallels with more recent, or even extant rock and cave art cultures, there is no way to confirm any of these conclusions. Whilst no doubt these artworks had a significance beyond the decorative and practical, surely in part their function was educational and commemorative – a visual aid in story-telling, a record and celebration of successful ventures. Australian Aborigines certainly use rock art in this way – as an aid in story-telling and passing on cultural information – yet this is also closely intertwined with religious ritual and mythological and spiritual beliefs.
Whatever the reasons for the production of this art, and whatever its function, it is certainly worthy of our admiration. To consider that people with minds as flexible and creative as ours, with equal artistic talent and capability, lived and produced art so long ago, is enough to move one to tears. The quality of the paintings from the caves of Lascoux or the Chauvet cave in southern France is breathtaking. It is not merely the understanding of movement, proportion, dynamism and grace shown in these renderings that is so striking, but also the deep sense of pathos which they convey. The eyes of these animals are hauntingly expressive, imparting a strong sense of individual feeling in some instances. Perhaps this is just my awed nostalgia combined with a tendency to anthropomorphise, yet in the absence of sophisticated human portraits, it is through the eyes of these animals, along with their meaty flanks, that we see the fleshy reality of their once having lived.
Anyone who is interested in this subject and has not seen Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, should do so immediately. I saw this in 3D at the cinema on its release and, whilst it has an occasionally frustrating, meandering style, it creates a powerful sense of awe around the art it showcases. I was deeply affected by this film and couldn’t stop Googling the images for weeks to come, out of awed admiration and a desire to look at great art, but also just to think, as I looked at it, that this was art produced by people, very similar in capacity to ourselves, who lived almost thirty thousand years ago in a world barely touched by the human presence. These artworks, and these spaces, have a quaintness for being both so beautiful and so discrete. They represent a time before humans had dominated their environment, when they both hid from its dangers and bravely took it on, spears in hand, made bold by the secret of fire and the tight social bonds of a rich and emerging culture. Take a look at the images and just ponder their antiquity, consider what was waiting them outside, in all its beauty, danger and uncertainty. It is staggering.
All this attention on European rock art, much as it deserves it, neglects potentially more ancient and significant contributions in Africa and Australia. The ancestors of the Australian Aborigines migrated out of Africa roughly 70,000 years ago and arrived in Australia via Asia some 50,000 years ago. Whether or not they were producing rock art prior to this is uncertain, yet considering how close in time the oldest dated works are to their date of arrival, it would be sensible to assume that this means of expression evolved beforehand and was brought to Australia with them, rather than arising spontaneously after their arrival. As Homo Sapiens with direct links to the same groups that migrated into Europe, this suggests we might locate the origins of art prior to the migration into Europe, though we cannot dismiss the possibility of such artistic expression developing independently on these separate continents.
The antiquity of Australian Aboriginal rock art is remarkable. Some rock art is so old that it depicts long extinct megafauna which was still extant in Australia when the Aborigines arrived.
Excavations at the the Narwal Gabarnmang rock shelter in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia have indicated that this is the oldest known rock art site in the world. The earliest definite date for the paintings there is 28,000 years old, though there is evidence of human occupation and use of the site which indicates humans were present as much as 45000 years ago, some five-thousand years older than the oldest known rock art at the El Castillo cave in Spain. The site has been described as the Sistine Chapel of rock art, not only on account of the huge number of paintings, stencils and drawings, but also because it is, to some degree, a man-made structure.
The pillars which support the flat rock canopy were shaped and carved by human hands to widen and open the space in which they worked. Even more remarkable is that the local Jawoyn community have a continuous, possibly unbroken link to this site. Their tribal elders, who were taken there and inducted into the culture and stories attached to the place, are now passing on this knowledge to their descendents.
This is, arguably, the longest example of cultural continuity anywhere on the planet, by a quite considerable margin. Many of the rock art sites in Australia are still in use and still maintained by the traditional custodians of the land, who, at times, refresh the images with new paint. Aboriginal culture, despite its social, religious and mythological sophistication, never advanced technologically beyond the Palaeolithic and remained as such until the arrival of Europeans. On account of this, despite having undergone evolution and adaptation over thousands of years of changing climate – ice-ages, great droughts, rising sea-levels, the lost of coastline, land-bridges and inland seas – Aboriginal cultural traditions remain an embodiment of beliefs and practices which go deep into prehistory. So deep in fact, that through their art and mythology, we can almost trace a line leading all the way back to Africa and those first Homo Sapiens who ventured out into the wider world.