(Image: Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute)
26 thousand years ago in the Czech Republic, one of our ice-age ancestors selected a hunk of mammoth ivory and carved this enigmatic portrait of a woman - the oldest ever found. By looking at artefacts like this as works of art, rather than archaeological finds, a new exhibition at the British Museum in London hopes to help us see them and their creators with new eyes.
Human ancestors date back millions of years, but the earliest evidence of the human mind producing symbolic imagery as a form of creative expression cannot be much older than 100,000 years. That evidence comes from Africa: this exhibition explores the later dawning of representative art in Europe and shows that even before the remarkable paintings of the Lascaux cave, France, humans were able to make work as subtle as the expressive face above.
"By looking at the oldest European sculptures and drawings we are looking at the deep history of how our brains began to store, transform and communicate ideas as visual images," says Jill Cook, the show's curator. "The exhibition will show that we can recognise and appreciate these images. Even if their messages and intentions are lost to us, the skill and artistry will still astonish the viewer."
Cook points to a figurative 23,000-year-old mammoth ivory sculpture from Lespugue, France, which is also in the exhibition. It so fascinated Pablo Picasso with its cubist qualities that he kept two copies of it. "This figure demonstrates a visual brain capable of abstraction, the essential quality needed to acquire and manipulate knowledge which underpins our ability to analyse what we see," says Cook.
Ice Age Art: Arrival of the modern mind runs at the British Museum, London, from 7 February to 26 May