LONDON (Reuters) - Voluptuous female forms crafted from mammoth ivory tens of thousands of years ago sit alongside curvaceous nudes by Henri Matisse at the British Museum in a new exhibition that aims to show how the modern artistic mind was carved.
"Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind" includes some of humanity's earliest known sculptures, such as a lion-headed man, and beads crafted from antler and bone at a time when giant woolly elephant-like beasts still roamed the Earth.
Throughout the exhibition archaeological artefacts are grouped with works by major modern artists, from Piet Mondrian to Henry Moore, which curators hope will show the ancient objects in a new artistic light.
"We have cut them (the sculptures) off by this terrible word pre-history for too long, and hopefully we have brought them all back together to be a reflection of our deep past and the origins of our art," exhibition curator Jill Cook said on Tuesday at a press preview.
The curved shapes of a handful of miniature sculptures and pendants of naked female bodies mirror a print of Matisse's "Grand Nu" from across the room and predate it by more than 20,000 years in a collection that brings together archaeological specimens from France to eastern Siberia.
A 23,000-year-old ivory carving of a naked woman opens the exhibition. Her abstract silhouette and rounded hips so captivated Spanish artist Pablo Picasso that he kept two copies of the sculpture.
The figure bears such striking resemblance to modern art that people often find it difficult to compute its age.
"Most people look at her and think 'who was the artist who made that and at what date in the 20th century?'" Cook said.
"She breaks down what can be a time barrier in recognising the history of our art and the aesthetic and the extraordinary skill and craftsmanship that has gone into making it."
The depiction of women in the collection ranges from various stages of pregnancy to ageing, suggesting that the figures were not necessarily erotica, but rather made for women and potentially by women, Cook said.
Skilled prehistoric craftsmen used tools similar to modern engraving equipment to create intricate images of deer and lions on bone, depicting movement and different textures of fur.
A replica of the so-called "lion man", a male figure with a lion's head dating back almost 40,000 years, represents the birth of figurative art.
Curators twinned that sculpture with a digitally adjusted image of a man with a leopard's head, used during London's Olympic Games last year to advertise water.
The show refrains from reproducing cave art on the white-washed walls of the exhibition space.
Instead, splashes of light are projected onto a reconstructed cave wall in a darkened room to recreate the experience of viewing cave drawings in flickering light, the conditions under which the art was originally painted.
"The artists were extremely skilled in watching how the light moves over the rock surfaces to provide them with the contours of animals which they held in their memory," Cook said.
"Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind" opens on Thursday and runs until May 26, with works on loan from German museums and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
(Reporting by Alice Baghdjian, editing by Paul Casciato)