A long time ago (about 40,000 years to be, sort of, precise) someone carved a bit of ivory into the form of a naked woman. The little figurine then laid in a cave waiting for someone to find it. Unfortunately it was found by a workman who, in 1922, accidentally put his pick axe through it. Some (other) one, however, realised how important it was. It was named the Lespugue Venus, after the place where it was found and, after more were discovered elsewhere, became one of the Venus Figures.
I’ve been intrigued by the Venus Figures for ages. It occurs to me that at some stage there was a change of heart and the maternal female form was dropped as something to adore and big, he-men statues with large biceps and small appendages became more prevalent. From mother worship to hero worship in a sudden, inexplicable moment.
And that is why I went to the British Museum to visit the Ice Age Art exhibition today.
It features some of the oldest artworks in the world, sculpted (mainly) and painted by Homo sapiens recently moved from Africa into Europe and Asia as the ice retreated.
And most of it is absolutely amazing. In particular, the female bison, striding towards the viewer, her mouth open as if she’s bellowing in order to move you out of the way. Although barely 150mm long, she is in perfect proportion to a full size bison of the period. The artist even took the trouble to carve her from a piece of tusk which mimicked the pronounced sway of her back. It really is a masterpiece.
And then, of course, there’s the many female figures. Mostly they are of either pregnant or motherly females but, quite often, merely representations of the female form, reduced to the barest minimum of detail while still being female. Some of them are mesmerisingly beautiful: The narrow pendant, featuring merely breasts and a torso, the young girl ready for womanhood, the heavily pregnant woman. Without wishing to sound too esoteric, it is possible to see something to worship within these pieces. An attempt, perhaps, to capture the essence of child bearing, the most important part of any tribe, and try and will it to happen.
Or maybe, and given I am a firm believer in Place Theory, possibly closer to the truth, they are artistic representations of a loved one; a sort of ancient 3D photograph.
When I think that, I wonder whether all of these items were merely decorative. The exhibition talks about early artists and the birth of art. These artists had brains very similar to ours. We’ll never know for certain but I think this precludes any sort of religious significance.
A lot of these items were found with bodies, clearly intentionally buried with them and, while it would be very easy to theorise that it was some sort of ritual gift to the gods or an amulet to ease their passage into a vague afterlife, it would be so much easier to conclude they were a favourite possession.
The only bit of this exhibition I wasn’t that keen on was the attempt to recreate some sort of Lascaux cave at the end. I walked into a darkened area, surrounded by the sound of a constant drip of subterranean water, and, as I turned, was confronted by a cave-like protuberance attached to the wall. On this and the wall from which it seemed to be connected to, was a video, showing bits of the Lascaux cave paintings.
It was constantly changing, different bits appearing and disappearing without meaning or explanation. Perhaps if we hadn’t been to Lascaux II last year, I would have found it interesting. As it was, I found it silly and pointless.
Still, the excellent far outweighed the silly…though the book outweighed everything – beautiful but very, very heavy.