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Sunday, April 28, 2013

69) Reindeer

Rangifer tarandus

Whenever I’m in London – and I’m there, in general, once every few years – one of the first places I visit is the British Museum.  I’m a creature of habit, I suppose, content to do the same things again and again – but notwithstanding that, the seemingly infinite insights into humanity afforded by the museum’s collection will, I imagine, never cease to amaze, astonish, and delight me.

Usually I’m content just to wander through the museum’s maze of rooms (though there’s one item in particular, an ancient board game scratched nearly three thousand years ago into the pedestal of an enormous Assyrian statue, that I always make sure to visit), but when I was in the museum just a few weeks ago it was with a much more specific, and directed, aim: I had a ticket to see the museum’s Ice Age Art exhibition.

The exhibition, which opened earlier this year and will close on the third of June, presents a number – a relatively small number by the standards of modern exhibitions – of carvings and sculptures created in what is now Europe over a period of time ranging from forty thousand to ten thousand years ago.  The exhibition is presented chronologically, and within each room is further divided thematically so that similar objects appear together.  Here and there the objects are counterpointed by small works – sculptures, drawings – by modern artists such as Mondrian and Matisse, but the focus is always – as it should be – on the ancient art.

Several of the items appear, to our eyes, to be purely decorative; whatever meaning they had we can now only guess at – barely even that.  A great many of the items, however, are clearly figurative or representational, and besides the human figures – overwhelmingly female – what they represent are animals.  Mostly mammals, but mammals of all kinds, again and again: sometimes crudely rendered; sometimes – the more recent carvings – created in exquisite and outstanding detail.  Whatever the level of craftsmanship, though, all the carvings display a breathtaking vividness, the vividness of animals acutely and daily observed.

The enormous head of Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) seems to have been almost willed out of a chunk of rock; or more tantalisingly, when the viewer’s eye lingers over the sculpture, a feeling emerges of the artist responsible having spotted the original rock and discerned within it the shape of the Musk ox’s head, the potential for transformation hiding within the rock.  A Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaean) reaches forward with all four legs; though the sculpture is barely more than a rough silhouette hewn out of wood, an accompanying photograph of a modern lion demonstrates the astonishing succinctness and clarity with which the artist summed up the animal in all its mid-hunt ferocity.  One extraordinary object is a spinning pendant, found in the Mas d’Azil Cave: one side depicts an infant Aurochs (Bos primigenius), the other side the adult; a hole is in the top of the disc and as the disc was spun by a thread tied through this hole the carvings on either side of the disc would have presented the flickering image of the animal growing from youth to maturity and back again.

For me, though, the most astonishing piece of all is a depiction of a Reindeer that was found in the La Madeleine Cave.  The animal’s likeness is etched into the ivory of its own horn.  It’s tiny, and with its enormous eye it appears at first to be almost a caricature.  Yet there’s something precise about the creature’s outline: the way it stretches its neck out as if cautiously smelling the air; the particular point of its ear or the tuft of fur on its chest.  If you can find space in the crowd of people around the display cabinet you might be tempted to lean in for a closer look, and as you do the astonishing detail of the work suddenly reveals itself as if a microscope had been switched on: every contour of the animal’s body, skeleton and muscle alike; every change in the texture of its fur – every detail of the animal is carved into the ancient ivory with a series of tiny and precise scratches that any jeweller would be proud of.  Looking at the animal it’s even possible to fancy that the beast is slightly undernourished, as if caught in the middle of a particularly difficult season.  That such detail was achieved on such a tiny scale, tens of thousands of years ago, using tools no more sophisticated than rock and bone and naked eyesight, makes the viewer gasp and almost cry at the genius of it. 

It’s that genius, that realisation of the keen intelligence and insight of the people who, when we were in school, we dismissed as merely “cavemen”, that justifies this exhibition its title: Ice Age Art.  Art is not always alive or vivid or exciting; it does not always convey something ineffable yet undeniable about the nature of its subject – but at its best, I think it’s fair to say, it always does.  The items on display in Ice Age Art rank among the greatest pieces of art I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.  Modest though they are, it’s surely not unreasonable to place them among humanity’s most significant achievements.

To be honest, though, I found it difficult to engage with the non-figurative items – those that I’m tempted, rightly or wrongly, to call ‘abstract’.  Even the human figures did not always excite me, marvellous though they are.  The items that really held my attention, that really made me gasp and grin in delight, were the carvings of animals.  It seems that throughout the entire long period represented by the exhibition, it was into the depiction of animals that the artists put all their effort and insight.  In these items it’s possible to see the artists – those ancient humans – attempting to engage, in some way, with another living creature: to give that creature some kind of dignity or worth in itself, if nothing else then through the very fact of having devoted so much time to its creation (researchers have concluded that some of these items would have taken hundreds of hours to create).  Again, we can’t know the purpose of these items, and perhaps there was some ritual or mystical significance to their creation or their existence – and yet as I looked at them I found myself feeling that I understood the minds of those ancient people

 When I started this blog, and ever since, I’ve been driving at something: I’m unsure what, or how to explain it, but I know it’s there and I can feel myself getting closer to it, or at least circling it.  Though it may make me sound hubristic to say so, in Ice Age Art I saw that same sense of drive, the same sense of purpose: the palpable feeling of a questing human mind, unsure what exactly it’s driving at but feeling itself on cusp of some discovery about itself or about the world.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but if whole point of Ice Age Art is to bring us closer to the common humanity of our forebears, then it works, it works spectacularly; and that’s how it worked on me.  It’s a privilege to have been able to see it; it’s the greatest privilege of all to belong to the same species as the people who created such exquisite and moving works of art so long ago.

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