Friday, 8 March 2013

Not so different after all...

I'm feeling almost normal this morning, which is a grand thing, especially as we're off to see Harry Hill tonight and Julian Lloyd-Webber tomorrow.  One will be larking around with a giant inflatable sausage, the other will be playing Elgar - I'll leave you to guess which.

So, to catch up a bit more - I've been 'doing a thing' or two, both jointly and severally with The Lovely Husband.  When his last contract finished at the end of last year, I made a list of the exhibitions in London that I rather fancied going to, in the hope that we'd get to at least one or two of them.

One of them on my list that I was most definite about seeing was the new Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum.  I'm a member there so I get to see all their exhibitions for free, which is always a bonus!  On 15 February, we drove up to London in the Smart Car again.  I think this will now be our preferred method for getting to London because, of course, the rail fares went up again in January and it is now most definitely cheaper for us to take the car.  Which is bloody stupid, but there you are.

My plan originally was that we would park somewhere very central, then hop over to the Hayward Gallery to see if we could get in to the Light exhibition that they're currently running, then grab some lunch in the small Wahaca restaurant in the shipping containers on the South Bank, then trot over the bridge to the British Museum for the Ice Age exhibition.  Good plan, non?

Except, like eedjits, we didn't prebook tickets for the Light Exhibition and the queue was waaaay outside the door.  We didn't feel like waiting around for a couple of hours so decided to come back another day - it's on until 28 April so, theoretically, there's time yet.  Walking back to the bridge, I noticed that the rather fantastic tugboat hotel was still sitting perched atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall:


As it was mid-morning it was much too early for lunch so we decided to head off towards the BM, and swing past a Cass Art shop (for some supplies for me) on the way.  We went to the one in Soho, then decided we might as well go to the Covent Garden Wahaca instead for lunch, where we arrived at about midday and just got seated before the queue started forming up the stairs.

We accidentally drank margaritas and beer:


And ate lovely, lovely Mexican food.

We then had a quick wander round Chinatown as TLH wanted to replenish our Ramen stocks.  It was still wearing its finery from New Year celebrations (I'm sorry the pictures are so dark, not sure why this was as the day wasn't especially bright...):


Then off to the BM we went.  The exhibition itself is in the space upstairs from the Reading Room (which, I believe, is going to be returned to a reading room again when the new BM extension is opened) which confused me a bit as I went round the central area a few times trying to find the entrance!

The exhibition had only been opened a few days when we went and was, needless to say, quite popular.  It was just about okay, though, if you were prepared to wait a few minutes in order to get close up to a case in order to get a really good look at something.  Which I highly recommend.

The artefacts in this exhibition are portable art.  In other words, small items that could be easily moved around, rather than cave paintings.  The exhibition is small, which is only to be expected.  The oldest of the items on display is 40,000 years old, and the most recent probably about 15-20,000 years old.  And, let's face it, you aren't going to find much stuff around that's that old now, are you?

What they did show was extraordinary.  The oldest object is a flute made from the bone of a Griffon Vulture.  So people had music then.

Just look how delicate this thing is. This is the original.  A reproduction has been made and proved to be playable.

The other thing that totally blew my mind was that there were ceramic figurines in the exhibition.  Human forms shaped from clay and fired in, well, a fire.  This means the first ceramic artefacts made by humans were art objects and not vessels.  Just think about that for a minute.  They used clay to make art and not cups or bowls.  Of course, there is the proviso that absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence, it may just be that there are cups and bowls older than these figurines that haven't been found yet.  But these items were special - they must have been to have lasted so long.  They were kept as a precious object and, in some cases, buried with their owner.

This ceramic female figurine is between 30-20,000 years old.  The observation of the maker is so good they've even included rolls of back fat:

Ice Age Art exhibition, British Museum. Feb 2013

Also about the same age is this extraordinary sculpture in mammoth ivory of a pregnant woman.  She is six inches tall and incredibly delicate.  Picasso was obsessed with this little figurine:

Ice Age Art exhibition, British Museum. Feb 2013

The fact that some of these items are found as grave goods indicates that people at the time had a concept of death and an afterlife.  Other questions that I asked myself as I was going around the exhibition were who made them? Men? Women? the elderly?  There are indications from modern anthropological studies of modern hunting societies that, in fact, there is a lot of 'downtime' involved in hunting, a lot of leisure time, sitting around waiting for the animals, so there would be plenty of time for observation and practising drawing/carving.

Also there was no paper at this time; the only surfaces available to paint and draw on were cave walls, flat stones, antlers, bones.  But these items/drawings are accurately proportional, and drawn with an economical use of line.  They are perfect.

The animal figurines are tiny and just beautiful, lovingly carved and professional.  They are very confident and practised - the sculptors knew these animals well, and respected them.

This mammoth ivory figure of a female bison ('The Zaraysk Bison') is about 22,000 years old and is exquisite.  The care taken in carving the head and muzzle is just amazing:

Ice Age Art exhibition, British Museum. Feb 2013

Ice Age Art exhibition, British Museum. Feb 2013

This little diving water bird is just under 2 inches long, made from ivory and about 32,000 years old:

They even had what could loosely be interpreted as toys for children.

This is made from mammoth ivory and is a jointed puppet of a man.  It is also over 20,000 years old. There are holes where the limbs could be attached and, presumably, made to move.  How amazing is that?

Ice Age Art exhibition, British Museum. Feb 2013

As I'm getting older and closer to menopause I'm finding myself becoming more emotionally overwhelmed by things.  This has come as something of a shock to me as I've always considered myself to be very controlling of my emotions.  I found myself moved to tears at the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibition at Tate Britain back in January by one particular painting.  I've sniffled through the odd orchestral symphony.

But there was one piece here which practically had me sobbing.  Totally unexpectedly.  It's not one of the main pieces, not highlighted in any way, in fact, blink and you'd miss it.  But it really connected with me.  This is it:

Ice Age Art exhibition, British Museum. Feb 2013

Like I said, not overly exciting at first glance.  If you look closely you'll see that it's a ptarmigan that has been engraved on reindeer antler.

This is a ptarmigan:

So I was looking at the antler piece, thinking that it looked like a really modern sketch, something I would do, and I envisaged myself drawing it, observing the bird, attempting to make the mark of the smooth curves on the surface of the antler and I suddenly, joltingly, 'connected' with the artist who had drawn this and I realised that, despite the distance of 30,000 years, we weren't so different after all.

It was almost overwhelmingly emotional for me and totally, totally unexpected.  I started to well up and knew that if I didn't stop thinking about this too much I would break down in wracking, heaving sobs!  Fortunately the exhibition is dimly lit so I could surreptitiously find a tissue and get control of myself.  But this was an extraordinary piece of art.  I'd go back again just to see this one little piece of antler again.

Needless to say, I would urge you to RUN to this exhibition if you get the chance - these items are more precious than rare jewels and it's such an opportunity to see them all in the same place at once.

And take some tissues.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post - even though the rock drawings of the horses made me cry - they really are perfect! We are in London for the week of the 14th April and I am def going to see the Ice Age exhibition, very exciting, and am going to Wahaca as well.

Mrs Jones said...

Hooray! It's so definitely worth seeing, and the Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition will also be on when you go. I should point out (and didn't actually make this clear in my post) that the rock drawings of the horses and big cats aren't actually in the exhibition, I was using them to illustrate the mastery of form of line the artists had in drawing animals but don't worry, there's enough mindblowing stuff. In fact, right outside the entrance to the exhibition is a cast of a clay sculpture of two bison that were made in a cave in France which did my head in somewhat! And enjoy Wahaca - classic margaritas are our fave, and there's a tasting menu for 2 people for about £19 which has a range of different things and is very good value, plus you'll be stuffed!!

Anonymous said...

Your'e white hair looks amazing by the way :-)