The Hooded Lady of Brassempouy

from Randall White’s Prehistoric Art:

The best known of the statuettes from Brassempouy is the 25,000 year-old “dame à la capuche” (hooded lady), carved from the dense, homogenous interior core of a mammoth tusk. She was found immediately below a fireplace and was covered by a small limestone slab. Although she has frequently been imagined to be the broken-off head of a complete figure, she is in reality nearly intact. A small fracture removed part of the right side of her neck and the lower extremity of her hair. This flake was probably an accident that occurred during the final stages of manufacture. The fracture surface shows several post-breakage burin marks, apparently made in an attempt to recover from this accident. The intact portion of the base of the statuette suggests that a nub or pedestal of ivory was left to serve as a fingerhold during the carving of this tiny piece (3.65 cm).

The well-preserved surface of the “dame à la capuche” shows remarkably clear traces of several different techniques: cutting, incising, grinding, polishing, scraping, gouging, and chiseling. Many of these techniques were produced by the same type of tool, a stone burin, manipulated in different ways and with great skill. The final product was a human head and neck, almost certainly female, that is a marvel of expression in miniature. The hair, as on many statuettes, was expressed as a grid of incised lines with the verticals done first. These were then crossed by the horizontals. The base of the hair is represented in bas-relief against the surface of the neck and shoulder. The incised grid was subsequently “softened” by laborious polishing, which muted the incision margins and angles.

The margins of the neck were deeply gouged with the flat face of a flint burin, diagnostic marks of which remain clearly visible. These include characteristic chatter-marks created as the working edge of the burin encountered different resistances in the raw material. On the forehead, the limit between hair and forehead was defined by a fine burin incision that shows some hesitation and retracing. The illusion of eyes was created by deeply carving overhanging eye sockets and then gouging holes to suggest the inner corners of the openings with the trihedral bit of a burin. This allowed the resulting shadows to give the impression of eyes. The carver placed the tool-bit in the corner of the eye and drew it downward to form the margins on the nose. The bottom of the nose was placed in relief by two or three chisel strokes. There are no nostrils and mouth.

Indeed, this subtlety and ambiguity of rendering is a large part of the reason that the “regard” of the “dame à la capuche” changes with different lighting. There are no fixed pupils or other anatomical details of the eyes that would imply an obligatory viewing angle. This was almost certainly intentional, since the probably viewing context would have been in the palm of the hand or between the fingers. Only by rotating her in this way to capture light from different direction does one perceive the subtle and dynamic details of texture and shadow. It is difficult to escape applying the term “impressionist” to this sculpture, created some 25,000 years before Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Matisse.

Nowhere among the Brassempouy figures can we find what we might term “realism.” Only essential qualities are defined, and what appears to be deliberate ambiguity and simple geometry leave much to the imagination: nudes without arms and feet, breasts without nipples, pubic triangles without sexual details. Curves and swellings evoke female reproductive states and anatomical qualities, but are not constrained by any degree of specific detail.

– Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind, 87-88