LONDON – The art world loves hype. Works are touted as the biggest, the rarest, the most expensive.
Even in an age of superlatives, the British Museum has something special — the oldest known figurative art in the world.
The artworks on display in the new exhibition “Ice Age Art” are so old that many are carved from the tusks of woolly mammoths.
But it’s not just their age that may surprise visitors. It’s their artistry.
These are artworks, not just prehistoric artifacts. Some of the sophisticated carvings, sculptures and drawings of people and animals look like something Pablo Picasso or Henry Moore might have created.
That shock of recognition is the aim of the show, which is subtitled “arrival of the modern mind” and explores the moment the human brain began to embrace abstraction, symbolism and imagination.
We don’t know what these distant ancestors believed or how they communicated, but we know how they thought — like us.
“They are fully modern humans,” Jill Cook, the museum’s curator of Paleolithic exhibitions, said Tuesday. “What these works of art show is that they have a visual brain capable of imagination and creativity.
“They really are us. They are our ancestors.”
Although early humans were making sophisticated tools, abstract items and music in southern Africa 100,000 years ago, the earliest surviving works representing people and animals appear after groups of people moved into eastern and central Europe some 45,000 years ago.
The plentiful wildlife roaming the grassy plains helped these communities of hunter-gatherers grow and flourish.
“The living was quite easy,” Cook said.
Then, some 40,000 years ago, the weather took a change for the icy. Suddenly, humans were struggling for survival, and this seems to have brought a surge of creativity.
Cook said that “faced with increasingly difficult conditions, finding the courage to go on” required of early humans “a fixing on things outside the human,” — the spiritual, perhaps.”
From its own collection and others across Europe, the museum has gathered artworks, made between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, that reveal a world vastly different from ours. Few are made from wood, a precious commodity during the Ice Age that had to be hoarded for fuel. They are made from bones, tusks and antlers, and sometimes rocks or clay. They depict animals that are now rare or extinct — mammoths, bison, lions, wolverines.
And yet, as art, they are instantly recognizable and remarkably sophisticated.
They play with ideas like perspective and scale, toy with abstraction and capture movement. Some of the animals show strength and grace: a delicate yet powerful bison, a mammoth poised to charge, a delicate carving of two reindeer swimming.
Ice Age artists could depict imaginary creatures, such as the man with a lion’s head found in a cave in Germany and created 40,000 years ago. They made musical instruments; there are flutes carved from swan bones and ivory.
The works are displayed alongside pieces by modern artists, including Henri Matisse — whose drawing of a voluptuous nude hangs near a plump female ceramic figure — and Henry Moore, whose rounded abstract sculptures can appear timeless and elemental.
Cook said the modern works are there partly to reassure visitors that this is an exhibition of art and not just archaeological artifacts — “You can look at them without being intimidated.”
There is also a more direct link. Some 20th-century modernists drew inspiration from the bold abstraction of ancient artworks. Picasso was fascinated with a 21,000-year-old ivory sculpture of a naked woman found in southwestern France in 1922 and kept replicas of it in his studio.
Despite the strong resonances, there remains much we don’t know about the distant past.
The exhibition includes many depictions of female figures, from girlish youths to pregnant women to mature matrons. Were they carved by men or, as Cook speculates, created “by women for women”? Many are realistic about large hips and bellies, and show an image of the female body Cook likens to the “does my bum look big in this” view in the dressing room mirror.
There’s also a 27,000-year-old puppet discovered in what is now the Czech Republic — possibly used in some shamanistic ritual, though it’s hard to be certain. Tools and cave walls were inscribed with a form of calligraphy which we can’t read.
And while Cook says these pieces are, “as far as we know, the oldest figurative art in the world,” many ancient mysteries remain.
“Discoveries tomorrow might change that,” she said. “And that would be fantastic.”
“Ice Age Art” continues to May 26.