The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Breathtaking art from 40,000 years ago shows a subtle beauty in its animal and human representations
Gazing at the 35,000-year-old carving The Vogelherd Horse, its gentle head nuzzling for a pat and the graceful curve of its neck echoing that of its hindquarters, immediately shatters any preconceptions of "prehistoric" peoples as brutish savages driven solely by elemental needs for reproduction and survival.
There is something breathtaking about being in the presence of such ancient representations of the animals and humans among whom their makers lived, and in sensing their pleasure in fashioning them.
This exhibition introduces us to small, portable items such as figurines, pendants and spear throwers made 40,000 to 12,000 years ago from western Europe to Siberia.
Clearly basing their works on subtle observation of their subjects' postures, movements and outlines, the makers judiciously selected the lines and shapes which best revealed their essential characteristics. The profile of the Bison Cow from Zaraysk in Russia superbly summarises the angularity of her overall shape while, seen frontally, the inward curve of her leg conveys her forward movement and her slightly open mouth suggests that she is calling.
The skilfulness entailed is all the more amazing given the limitations of available materials and tools. Such exquisite forms were carved and etched into the hard surfaces of mammoth tusks and reindeer antlers with nothing more than pointed, sharp edged flints and one of the most impressive exhibits is the Leaf-Shaped Flint Point. Its elegant shape and smoothed, rippling surfaces catching the light to form a jewel-like object which is beautiful in itself.
The most naturalistic representations began about 20,000 years ago in the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet. The carvings and etchings have the same finesse of line and sophisticated understanding of proportion and spatial recession as these caves' better known contemporaneous wall drawings. A sound/film installation simulates the mystery and fear of experiencing the drawings by flickering firelight on the dark caves' bumpy walls.
A section is devoted to numerous figures which show the female body from puberty to various stages of pregnancy, childbirth and mature age.
Many simplify the body into basic forms as in the faceless, rotund and full-breasted Women Of Willendorf, found as far apart as France and Siberia. Others reduce the body to an abstracted headless and cylindrical form, from which full breasts protrude.
Reflecting changing social and cultural attitudes, archeologists have variously interpreted female figures as "pornographic atrocities," fertility goddesses or earth mothers. Current research suggests that some may have been created by women for women as part of child bearing and birthing rituals.
Without written or oral evidence archeologists cannot be certain of these objects' purposes and meanings. They can only speculate about ancient societies' beliefs, social organisations and cultures by interpreting surviving artifacts in the context of other knowledge including geographical, geological and climatic conditions.
To the layperson this fascinating academic discipline can seem remote, evoking dry displays of stone age tools in provincial museums. But this exhibition aims to make it more widely accessible by presenting artifacts as works of art rather than as sociological evidence. Thus they are exhibited alongside 20th-century modernist art, their makers are identified as "artists" and frequent parallells are drawn between the skills and "fundamental concepts" of both eras.
The exhibition's title and the captions, explanatory panels and publicity brochures all stress that the artifacts were created by "artists with modern minds like our own." The objects are interpreted primarily in terms of contemporary neurological and psychological knowledge about the human mind and by the formal analysis practised by art historians.
This does encourage us to look very carefully at the artifacts since we are used to approaching art in terms of individual aesthetic response. It is impressive to realise that the person who chipped away at a mammoth tusk 40,000 years ago would make aesthetic judgements with the same cognitive and imaginative faculties as modern artists.
Yet this approach relies on the dominant "art for art's sake" critical criterion. Assuming that the function of art is to provide passive consumers with aesthetic pleasure, it divorces art and artists from social responsibility. And the comparisons with early modernists ignores their social and aesthetic radicalism, whose emulation of "primitive" art was a provocative rejection of their era's dominant aesthetic norms, rooted in the classical ideal.
Most importantly this curatorial approach glosses over the fact that the social role of ice age "art" certainly differed utterly from that of ours. It is a pleasure to see these objects and to see them so well displayed but the exhibition could have provided a powerful call to action to 21st-century viewers and artists if it had contrasted the integrated social role played by these beautiful objects with the parlous social role our society accords to our own art.
Runs until May 26. Box office: (0207) 323-8299.
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