The more history unfolds, the less the description “Homo sapiens” -- man the wise -- seems to fit. Perhaps we should speak instead of Homo pictor, man the painter, or of human beings as the sculpting species.
That, at any rate, is part of the message of “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” at the British Museum in London.
Two points strike you as soon as you step into the installation. One is that the objects that you are looking at are amazingly old. Among the first you see is the “Lion Man,” carved from a mammoth’s tusk approximately 40,000 years ago. That’s long enough ago to make the ancient Egyptians seem like newcomers, and the Venus de Milo a piece of contemporary art.
The other astonishing thing is the high artistic quality of many pieces on display. A Paleolithic critic might have found the “Lion Man” himself a little cartoony. Still, many of the only slightly newer items in the exhibition are nothing short of masterpieces.
The best-known prehistoric art is the cave painting in southwestern France and northern Spain, all impossible to transport. On show at the museum is a display of sculptures and objects -- most small, some tiny -- carved from stone, bone and (frequently) mammoth tusk.
Early on you come to an array of naked female figures quite as portly as Lucian Freud’s celebrated sitter, the Benefit Supervisor. Since nudism was not a practical lifestyle in Ice Age Europe, these unclothed figures must be either religious, artistic or probably both.
As with all prehistoric art, their precise significance is much debated and essentially unknown.’
What is clear, however, is that whoever made them had looked hard at a real, overweight woman’s body. On the back of an approximately 30,000-year-old nude found in Moravia, there are folds and creases of flesh. As with the cave paintings of Lascaux (estimated at 17,300 years old), the most startling aspect of these almost unimaginably old works of art is their naturalism.
A little mammoth ivory head from Brassempouy in south western France has been claimed as the first surviving portrait, and it does indeed have the look of a specific person.
The best subject for these early artists was animals, rather than other people. The most beautiful exhibits are carvings and drawings on bone of cave bears, bison, deer, horses, mammoths, a wolverine and even fish.
In many cases these are observed acutely and represented with a fresh directness it would be hard to beat. Here is proof that art doesn’t progress.
On the contrary Joan Miro, the great Catalan modernist painter, once declared that it had been decadent since the time of the cave man.
The other slight flaw is a brave, not entirely successful attempt to give a photographic impression of cave painting in a dark space toward the end.
These aren’t important defects; the prehistoric artifacts on display are so remarkable that you scarcely notice anything else. Even more extraordinary is the thought that these aren’t the first works of art, just the first to survive.
Quite recently a 100,000-year-old shell turned up in which someone had mixed paint. People had probably been making art for untold millennia before the “Lion Man.”
“Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” is at the British Museum until May 26. Information: http://www.britishmuseum.org or +44-20-7323-8299.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.