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Jill Cook – Ice Age art: Arrival of the Modern Mind

Ice Age Art by Jill Cook

Portentious music. Voice Over: “You’re in for the most extraordinary experience. Obviously, it’s amazing for me, a maker today, to see the work of, I think, contemporary minds of 40,000 years ago”. That’s Antony Gormley, introducing the exhibition at the British Museum that the book, “Ice Age art – arrival of the modern mind” by curator Jill Cook is based on.

Well, yes, Antony, I expect you are excited; you’ve been nicking antediluvian concepts for most of your career. Your cute little mini terracotta army, your “Antony Gormley as God” Angel of The North sculpture? The whole tone of this enterprise is centred around: “Whoah! People made really great stuff before we came along!It’s as if we picture those rather unshaven brutes of prehistory, lacking in fashion direction, prognathic jaw dribbling slightly. He gazes around, dully puzzled. Lost without his 3D printer, he shrugs and goes back to dragging his woman by the hair around the cave and chewing on raw meat.

Ice Age Art bison But no! The British Museum urges you to “Discover masterpieces from the last Ice Age drawn from across Europe in this groundbreaking show. Created by artists with modern minds like our own, this is a unique opportunity to see the world’s oldest known sculptures, drawings and portraits. These exceptional pieces will be presented alongside modern works by Henry Moore, Mondrian and Matisse, illustrating the fundamental human desire to communicate and make art as a way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world.” The book offers parallels between the articles and 20th Century advertising.

The concept has been done before, and in a way that doesn’t assume the viewer is cerebrally challenged. With the statement of intent to create an exhibition which “explores the transversal links between places, history, creative heritage and universal wisdom”, Axel Vervoordt’s 2011 exhibition “TRA: the edge of becoming” was a masterpiece in subtle comparison. Set in Venice’s Fortuny museum, pieces were dotted around the entire palazzo as if some eccentric collector with a magpie eye had invited you over for tea and a wander: Marina Abramovich’s large geode sculpture downstairs, a roomful of dramatic, specially commissioned Hiroshi Sugimoto lightening sculptures upstairs and a curio cabinet containing Picassos. Next to that is a vitrine spotlighting several ovals, roughly the same size, with holes near the top. They look like an accumulation of 60s space age handbags, smooth and white. They are prehistoric gods. (Not even prehistoric totems for worshipping gods, according to the label, they’re just gods, made from rock). On the same floor is a Roman Janus head. They’re all just there, in amongst, leaving you to oo and wow as you please.

Venu of Willendorf The artefacts in the British Museum show and publication have pieces similarly worth seeing. They include the Venus of Willendorf, 25,000 year old supposed fertility symbol, appropriated as a modern icon for sexy fat ladies everywhere, and a detailed, highly imagined Lion Man, alongside depictions of bison, reindeer, horses and birds. The works are well presented, well photographed and lit. Just… less of the primary school exhortations to be slack jawed with surprise next time, please?

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