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Prehistoric Times: a Modern Enigma

With the exhibition Prehistoric Times, Centre Pompidou explores archeology and the concept of Prehistory in a profound way.

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Centre Pompidou recently opened the exhibition: Prehistoric Times, a modern enigma. The show explores the ties uniting prehistoric with modern and contemporary art. It reveals that some of the greatest artists of the 20th and 21st century were haunted by the questions of Prehistory, from Picasso to Giacometti and from Beuys to Klein. Other than that it shows the contradictions that come to play with prehistoric documents: the need to deconstruct and the need to build new foundations; the emergence from history and the immersion in history; the desire for revolution and fear of the apocalypse.

Prehistory is a modern concept, the word itself was not established until the 1860s. Yet, the prehistoric reality built up progressively over the course of the 19th century as an inseparable body of facts, ideas, and fantasies. These break down in three phases: the increasing realization of the duration of life on earth by researching fossils, the notion of prehistoric human cultures connected to artistic activity and the acknowledgment for parietal art.

The tremendous body of artifacts, ideas and speculations had a great influence on collective and individual creation. Evidence of earth before mankind and the slow process of homogenization also led to ideas of possible extinction of humankind. Especially the transformation from the hunter-gatherer (Palaeolithic) societies to agrarian (Neolithic) societies created a certain reflection on mankind’s growing power, all the way to the industrial era. Prehistoric art was created, not only as fascination but also as artistic research and experimentation.

Prehistoric Times, a modern enigma presents a chronological line from the 19th and 20th century (Redon and Cézanne), a core ranging from the 1930s ( (e.g. Picasso, Miró, Giacometti, Ernst) to the late 1960s (e.g. Louise Bourgeois, Beuys, Smithson) and a final contemporary part. With this narrative, visitors are invited to reflect on different subjects: the expanse of time, earth without mankind, human beings and animals, gestures and tools, caves, the Neolithic period and the historic present. All intercut with iconic prehistoric artifacts from the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods: fossils, major Palaeolithic sculptures (the Venus of Lespugue and the mammoth of La Madeleine), engraved stones, knapped and polished flints, menhirs and Neolithic idols. Finally, the narrative concludes with evoking the invention of Prehistory and its popular dissemination with titles such as The Quest for Fire, and cult films based on mythological origins such as The Lost World, Three Ages, and Jurassic Park.

Prehistoric Times, a modern enigma is on show at Centre Pompidou from May 8 to September 16, 2019.

Cover image: Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow,
BC-AD; contemporary flint tool design
© Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow
© Centre Pompidou, Mnam/Cci,
photo: Audrey Laurans / Dist. RMN-GP

Images from exhibition view « Prehistoric times, a modern enigma » © Centre Pompidou, Philippe Migeat, 2019

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