The Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — 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.
But it's not just their age that may surprise visitors. It's their artistry.
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.
"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."
The plentiful wildlife roaming the grassy plains helped these communities of hunter-gatherers grow and flourish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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" opens Thursday and runs to May 26.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.