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The Creative Ice Age Brain
Bradshaw Foundation Books
Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience
by Barbara Olins Alpert
• Publisher: Nyehaus Foundation
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1934171107
• ISBN-13: 978-1934171103
A haunting mystery surrounds the magnificent Ice Age art that is found mainly in the caves of Western Europe. In this substantial new study, scholar Barbara Alpert approaches this art using information from psychology and discoveries in neuroscience. Techniques such as computerized tomography (CT) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have demonstrated an enormous amount about the working of the brain. By examining the oldest-known human-made images in the light of this new information, Alpert reveals many of the impulses that underlie their creation.
In a detailed comparison of Ice Age images with similar examples found throughout art history, Alpert argues that the approach of these earliest artists was not unique, but forms part of a continuum linking the distant past with the present. She shows how the art is based on a visual language found worldwide - one that appears to be universal for our species.
Bradshaw Foundation - Editor's Review
On seeing the title of this new book, it is immediately apparent that a door is daring to be opened. Could it be that the intriguing yet elusive subject of prehistoric art is going to be analysed and explained by utilising the field of neuroscience?
The Creative Ice Age Brain begins by laying out the building blocks of art - ‘The Universals’- with the premise that during the Ice Age, one of the primary concerns of our ancestors was to establish order in a world of uncertainty.
Alpert takes this further - the artists were able to convey the spirit, the quintessential elements of their world because they had discovered how to focus on one type of the brain’s visual processing at a time by switching emphasis from one type of processing to another, for example from outline to generalized mass. Perhaps the most original part of the book is the extensive analysis of visual illusions used by these artists. Alpert shows how they provide a window into the Ice Age mind.
With fresh eyes, which perhaps in this case can only come from those of an artist, the author reveals the subtlety and complexity of Ice Age art. She identifies basic elements of the art, such as symmetry and repetition. The examples not only reinforce her premise of an underlying order, but also the importance of the perceiving mind, how a symmetrical image may fit more easily into our mental framework and may account for 'aesthetic ‘satisfaction’. If an image is recurring, such as the female figurines, or a a particular type of animal, or a specific shape then the sought-after ‘order’ is achieved by our memory which recognizes information that has already been categorized and stored.
Throughout the book, Alpert not only identifies salient artistic characteristics, she also provides intriguing analogies throughout art history. She reminds us that this seamless tradition exists because, although there are clear temporal and spatial variations, the underlying impulse remains the same. We are dealing with the same minds - our minds.
But conveying one’s world did not involve mere slavish imitation; the art is imbued with ‘shibui’ - the Japanese term which refers to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Furthermore, metaphors, ambiguities and paradoxes were employed. Ice Age artists knew that a partial representation, such as the female figures of La Roche de Linde, would generate an emotional pitch because of the omissions and distortions. Some argue today that this is exactly what is lacking with the planned White Horse of Ebbsfleet in Kent, England. The same accusation cannot be laid at the feet of Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’.
The Creative Ice Age Brain establishes that art was consciously created and employed to instill order. But our Ice Age ancestoral artists quickly realized that there was more to be said. They utilized ‘surprise’. Art was not just a facsimile of an object, it was an expression of how we interact with that object. I was delighted to see that the author uses the Lortet antler baton - the rightly famous piece clearly shows how this artist interacted with the subject-matter.
Alpert is not only able to make accurate observations about the artistic sensibilities of humankind, from the earliest to the most recent, she also places them under the light of neuroscience. Along a path that is understandable and not overly esoteric, we are led from external stimuli to emotional responses to the movement of the hand to the mark it leaves. - electromagnetic stimuli reaching the senses and translated into particular graphics.
Personally, I find Alpert’s book simultaneously reassuring and frightening. Reassuring because it shows a unity and sophistication in theme and skill, from the Ice Age artist all the way through to the modern-day artist. Frightening because, whether it be good or bad, perhaps nothing has changed artistically. The author cleverly introduces the term reinvent. ‘Ice Age artists made early forays into what would later be called Pointillism, Cubism and Surrealism. When, in subsequent periods, artists wanted once again to depict the reality they saw, they would reinvent the same techniques. I use the term reinvent because Ice Age art was hidden and unknown until the nineteenth century. An understanding of Ice Age art-making techniques was only gradually revealed in the twentieth century. These techniques are now staples in the tradition of art-making up to the present.’ Reassuring and frightening that we, as creatures, still experience the same simple emotion when exposed to the colour red.
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Barbara Olins Alpert
Barbara Olins Alpert is an artist and art historian. She taught prehistoric art at the Rhode Island School of Design between 1988-2000. For many years she has been engaged in field research on rock art in the United States, France, Spain, Sweden, South Africa, India and Australia. A number of her articles on Ice Age art have appeared in museum journals including Anthropologie published by the Moravske Museum, Brno, Czech Republic and L' Anthropologie published by the Musée de l'Homme, Paris. Alpert's understanding of and approach to Ice Age art is deepened by an empathy drawn from her own experience in working with materials not unlike those used by Ice Age artists.
She works in a variety of media related to drawing, painting and sculpture. In addition to exhibitions of her work in the United States she has shown work in Malta, Russia, China and Japan. Barbara Olins Alpert is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a summa cum laude graduate of Brown University and Life Member of the Art Student's League. She is listed in the UNESCO publication Who's Who in Rock Art.
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