BY Charlie Fox in One Takes | 30 SEP 13
Featured in
Issue 2

Picture Piece

The oldest known face of a woman

BY Charlie Fox in One Takes | 30 SEP 13

A daydream clouds the object (what were the most frequent dreams during the Ice Age?) and blank fact follows without a hint of elegance — it is still the Ice Age, according to experts, until the ice sheets of the Antarctic disappear. Contemplating this 26,000-year-old portrait of a woman — the first portrait of any sort (material: mammoth ivory, dimensions: approximately the height of your thumb) — I think of heat. This is, perhaps, a misguided sensation, a spooked, protective response to something so distant from our disturbed contemporary weather. I am not thinking about the possible warmth of mammoth fur but the slow ascent of a feverish temperature, the sort that sets things ablaze and makes them minuscule because there is something hallucinatory about this little, inscrutable object.

Then comes the whimsical thought of mammoth ivory as a contemporary material, madly sought in the fields of the Czech Republic where this piece was unearthed, or of the heat inside a beehive because there is something of honey in its lustre, streaked with ash. Maybe it’s something Alberto Giacometti abandoned, torching everything but the head which, like so many of his figures, looks blind but not thin, not ravaged enough, or the shrunken double of a monster from a B-movie, a tape of ghoulish cries soon to be dubbed into its hollow mouth.

Thinking of the mammoth’s extinction, the artist and the woman, long-perished but all uncannily still here, I remember Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘A Postcard From The Volcano’ (1936), which records the aftermath of nightmarish heat; the mute, eerie persistence of things extinct. A ghost-chorus tells of ‘children picking up our bones’ in an ashen landscape, their skeletons reduced to so much nameless wreckage. A flash comes at the end, the thought of something damaged, suddenly alight, ‘a tatter of shadows … smeared with the gold of the opulent sun’.

Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London, UK. His book of essays, This Young Monster (2017), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.