THE SURVEY OF art's history offered to the public by Washington's museums is sadly incomplete. It leaves out the beginning, and most of the middle. All the art in Washington is relatively new.
Art from Sumer, from Assyria, from the Egypt of the Pharoahs, from Crete and Greece and Rome, and artifacts much older are almost never seen in Washington's museums. A chauvinism of a sort, a preference for the recent, distorts their collections. Thousands of fine objects, animals of ivory, idols carved of stone, figurines of clay, earrings of cast gold -- all of which were made between 30,000 B.C. and 6,000 years ago -- are now known to art historians. But we do not see them here.
* The oldest painting owned by the National Gallery of Art is an illustrated page from a giant bible. It was made 900 years ago. The print collection there begins with a woodblock image on a lectern cloth made in Upper Austria circa 1400. The gallery does own a Roman floor mosaic, "Symbols of Bacchus as the God of Wine and Theater," that dates from the third century. But its presence, in the floor of the West Building, seems a bit anomalous. Those who visit that museum, and rely on its collections, may well leave believing that the history of art begins somewhere in Europe just before the Renaissance.
* Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown owns a few antique objects -- a bronze Assyrian horse bit, a Greek statue of Hephaistos, a black figured Attic vase (circa 500 B.C.) -- but not all are on view. Its Pre-Columbian collections include some things that are older, the earliest of which may be an Olmec jaguar mask from 800 B.C. Even that old New World mask isn't all that old. The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City owns a bone, from an extinct llama, on which an animal, perhaps a dog, was carved at least 10,000 years ago.
* Perhaps the oldest work of art -- at least the oldest ritual object -- on view in this city is in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. It is a jade utensil, a chisel of a sort, that was carved in China some 6,000 years ago.
One object on the Mall, in the Museum of Natural History, appears to have some age on it. It seems to be a piece of ivory engraved with lattices and chevrons. But because it's made of plastic, it doesn't really count. It is a modern cast of an old original, a tusk carved in Czechoslovakia 24,000 years ago.
Wouldn't it be nice to see somewhere in this city a chronological display of truly ancient art? It might open, say, in Egypt and then proceed back to the Ice Age. Continuities revealed in such an exhibition might succeed in showing us how much the artists of our own age owe those who went before.
How old is man's art? Very old indeed.
Thirty-two-thousand years ago, in Vogelherd, in Germany, he, or perhaps she, was carving horses out of ivory. In 27,000 B.C., in Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia, he was making human figurines of hardened, fired clay. More than 20,000 years ago, he was painting life-like murals in French and Spanish caves. This week we learned, from news reports, that anthropologists have found a 14,000-year-old shrine, complete with altar and stone idol, in a cave in Spain. Skilled metalsmiths were casting ornaments of copper in Vinca, on the Danube, 6,000 years ago. In 4300 B.C., some 1,600 years before the building of the pyramids, artists near the Black Sea were already making earrings, beads and scepters out of gold.
In 20,000 years, the technology of painting has changed only slightly. The muralists who painted Altamira's bison had brushes, artificial light, fine long-lasting pigments, and spray guns of a sort. And they could draw like pros. The differences between the tool kit that was used by the artists of the Ice Age, and by Picasso painting Guernica, are astonishingly slight.
An "Old Art" show might trace, over 32,000 years, the image of the horse -- from that produced in Vogleherd to those that rear today on the hoods of cars; or the treatment of the female nude from the "Venuses" of Willendorf (circa 28,000 B.C.) to those of the Cyclades (circa 3,500 B.C.) to Hiram Powers "Greek Slave" to the marbles of Rodin.
The visual arts, unlike the others, let us peer into the past. The sculptors of the Ice Age probably could joke, could cook and dance and sing. But their stories and their recipes, their dances and their songs, have vanished without trace. Their art alone remains.
Most of it is now stored out of sight in the dusty drawers of archeological museums. Through purchases, or borrowings, it could be placed on view. Washington's museums, which exhibit art's finale, have overstressed the moderns. It is time that those museums give the old folks' art its due.