Back when you could walk from France to England, from 35,000 to 10,000 B.C., there was no lack of art.
Ice covered the Alps, but in closer to the Mediterranean, where ibex and bison enjoyed a milder climate, culture reached a new peak. Beyond primitive cave markings, the sculpture, bas-relief work and color drawings left behind attest to man's awareness of the world.
"Ice Age Art," which opened at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall this week, presents more than 240 objects and photographs that prove the existence of artists at the time of the big freeze. Included are multicolored paintings of woolly mammoths and the mummified foot of a young one, found in the mud near Fairbanks, Alaska; an engraving on a reindeer antler portraying a bison licking its side; a 12,000- year-old set of antlers from an extinct Irish elk bull (11 feet across, found in a peat bog in Limerick County), and carvings of pregnant or prayerful women.
As usual, Geographic exhibits the art in its social, ecological and anthropological context, and puts it all in laymen's terms.
An Ice Age tool kit displays bone points, harpoons, knife blades. Blow-ups of color photographs of famous cave paintings from Alta Mira, Lascaux and La Madeline in France hint at the fears and passions of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon artists. Clearly, symbolism was nothing new to them. Engraved on one antler is a bear facing a phallus which, in the other direction, is a phallus within a vulva.
The complexity of the works is surprising. Dots, handprints, abstract signs and jewelry reveal that these weren't simple hunters, but members of an evolving culture. The "Venus" figurines, carved female figures, circa 28,000 B.C., possess a common style of faceless bowed head, giant breasts and hips, tiny feet. Burial costumes included all manner of beads and bracelets used in rituals and as status symbols.
Most frustrating is the Ice Age artist's shyness in depicting himself. Bison got the full treatment, mammoths are recorded by the herd, but the self-portrait was ages away. ICE AGE ART -- At Explorers Hall, 17th and M Streets NW, through October 30. Monday-Friday, 9 to 6; Saturday 9 to 5; Sunday 10 to 5.