an artists' view

an artists' view

Sunday, 2 June 2013

ice age art @the British Museum

Last Friday I visited London to go to the British Museum. It was the last few days of the 'Ice Age Art' exhibition, which finished today. Above is an engraving on the tip of a Mammoth Tusk; which, it is thought 'may' be a 'map'. As I'm very interested in maps, and how we envisage our environment I spent a long time peering at it. 
Above is the 'Zaraysk Bison'; also carved from mammoth ivory. It was found in 2001, in archaeological layers dating from 22,000 years ago. This is an exquisite carving. I spent a lot of time gazing at it. I almost expected it to breathe, and walk out of the display case, such is the skill of the carver.
Above is a linocut from Victor Pasmore, from 1952. 
In the catalogue Jill Cook writes how Professor Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist 'proposes that it is the function of the visual brain to "seek knowledge of the constant and essential properties of objects and surfaces." (and) This information is then transformed through abstraction or metaphor to mimic or perfect the received knowledge in some material form'.
Though I haven't read the catalogue yet (well it is huge!) this seems to be the hook that the exhibition is based upon. To relate modern abstract art, to art made thousands of years ago. 
Which is funny to me; because much of the art shown, was very representational, as can be seen in the Bison carving.
I'm not convinced; it's true that Modernist artists of the 1930's were enormously influenced by so-called 'primitive' art of the past, as can be seen in Hepworth and Moore's sculptures. And ancient art created a bridge between modern representational art, and the development of abstract art in the twentieth century, this is true.
The British Museum exhibition seems to present these artworks as 'Art'. Which to our modern view, they most certainly are. The skill and craft on show, display the work of artists. What is missing, or was missing from the display, (but which may be explored in the catalogue?) was a larger context. 
We can never know why these pieces were made; we can never know why some of them seem to have been deliberately broken (eg; the leg off the bison, above), and thrown into a pit. These objects are a mystery. Western anthropologists have given us insights into tribal societies, that suggest 'art' is not made for purely 'artistic' reasons in those cultures. There are other purposes. Ritual; religious; spiritual purposes. Which was missing from the exhibition; though may be addressed in the catalogue? 
I hope so.
But whatever my thoughts afterwards, nothing can interfere with the beauty of these carvings and engravings. I feel so privileged to have got to this exhibition. To have stood in front of them, and witnessed their timeless connection to the world.


  1. 'timeless connection' that is a good way of putting it; I'm almost sure the people who made the objects all those years ago must have felt pleasure, enthusiasm and all that we experience whilst making; even if the objects were destined to be part of a ritual, the benefit of their community or religious reasons... the makers were 'artists' like us

  2. The makers made art, for sure. I don't know if their definition of 'art', and 'artist' would be the same as our modern definition. It's one of those wonderful mysteries that catch upon these ancient pieces; mysteries I don't need answers to.
    Indeed, is there an accepted definition of what constitutes an artist in he 21st Century? Another mystery. What would life be if there was no mystery?


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