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Images of women

The sculpted and engraved female figures of the late Ice Age dating between about 16,000 and 12,000 years ago are abstract forms often reduced to a few lines that reflect the essence of female sexuality in patterns, silhouette and minimalist sculptures. They are distinct in style and perhaps meanings from the female sculptures of the earlier period between about 32,000 and 20,000 years ago that usually represent nurturing maternal figures.

The silhouette and minimal stone figures occasionally appear on functional objects but are more often seen in engraved drawings on stone slabs or cave walls or as bone, ivory or stone sculptures, as well as beads and pendants made from these materials. They lack heads and present the body in profile from the shoulder to the knee often emphasising the curvature of the hip and thigh. The breast may or may be present. The figures appear young and full of sexual potential. Sometimes their curvature or the angle between the torso and thigh seem to produce a sense of movement as if posed in dance.

Expressing beauty and eroticism by abstracting the female body in this way is well known in many modern drawings, paintings and sculptures. Such abstraction allows the mind to use imagination to fill the details and interpret the aspects of most interest to the viewer. In this sense they depict the intellectual ability to symbolize and give meaning to form without the need to be realistic. Whether their interpretation is purely sexual or an iconic reflection of the importance of women’s role within the social group or as dictated by belief is impossible to determine. These abstractions encapsulate an elegant sexuality with an intellectual reality rather than straightforward naturalism. They are bodies of ideas rather than straightforward representations and as such they are indicative of minds powered by a modern brain in which the faculties for communication and creativity are fully developed.

Some of figures that lack a clearly defined breast may be seen as sexually ambiguous. Their simplicity of form seems to undermine clear categorisation of masculine and feminine. These pieces distance the viewer from the familiar by expressing a subconscious blurring of sexuality as seen in modern surrealist works such as Brassaï’s Nudes photographed in 1933 or Brancusi’s Torso sculptures of 1924 and 1926, in which the representations might also be read as phallus or female torso.

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