Stuck with you in the cave. Again. 26,000 year old portrait of a woman. Image Source: Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute / Short Sharp Science.
Time capsules go both ways. In light of this post, where experts are puzzling over the invention of spear heads well before their common appearance, I wondered whether an exceptional mind appears every few centuries or even every millennia. Perhaps this mind invents something almost in a vacuum, way before the commonly-dated arrival of the innovation. For example, daVinci designed a helicopter in the 16th century. But we don't date the invention of the helicopter to the date of his design. We date it to 1936, with the appearance of the Focke-Wulf Fw 61.
We are aware of the first cave paintings dating to about 100,000 years ago (see my posts on cave paintings here, here and here). But the creation of the oldest portrait is another matter. Above, a 26,000 year old mammoth ivory carving billed as the oldest known portrait. It is included in the upcoming exhibition Ice Age Art: Arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum, London, from 7 February to 26 May.
Is it a portrait? My friend, C., who is an artist, does not think so. I grant it to my friend: the chosen title of the exhibition weirdly revels in anachronism. The carving raises some questions. It is not inconceivable that an individual's likeness could be used in order to fashion the image of a god. That would be a representation of a model to achieve a ritualistic aim, but it is only incidentally a portrait, and technically not really one.
At what point can we distinguish between a sculpture of a god or goddess, and an artist's statement about fellow humans, made in the form of a likeness of an individual? The latter seems a much more modern idea. An artwork which is a portrait would have to have some particular quality to make it an item of personal, rather than divine, effigy.
And I cannot help but think that the intellectual baggage we bring to how we understand representation and creativity blinds us to the fact that an exceptional Ice Age human might have been quite capable of portraiture. I can see why researchers assumed it was a portrait and not religious iconography. There is too much going on in that face for it to have been anything but a human being, and a particular one at that.
Short Sharp Science:
Twenty-six 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.