Temporary Exhibit
Artifact for Inspiration: Brassempouy. The head in mammoth ivory, purportedly from the Grotte du Pape in southwestern France, is considered one of the finest pieces of the earliest Aurignacial (after 30,000 BCE).
Artifact for Inspiration: Lespugue. This Gravettian (c. 25,000 BCE) piece from the Les Rideaux Cave in the Pyrenees is the figure that inspired Kavanagh as a child and, purportedly, Picasso too, who kept two castings of it in his studio.

The Artist's Eye

Figurines of the Paleolithic

August 11, 2018 – March 17, 2019


The Artist’s Eye: Figurines of the Paleolithic is an art exhibition featuring sculptures by Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh that pay homage to some of the first three-dimensional representations of the female form ever discovered: figures created by Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers between 40,000 and 15,000 BCE.


Over 200 of these figures were discovered, some in association with weaponry, jewelry, and animal remains at archaeological sites from southwestern France to Siberia. Most were found in farmers’ fields or in early excavations when archaeological methods were imprecise and less sophisticated than today.


In awe of these figures since seeing the so called “Venus of Lespugue” in Paris as a child, Kavanagh began contemplating “how people living at the edges of glacial ice could produce such expressive sculpture with stone tools.” She has replicated 12 of the ancient figures, taking care to be faithful to the originals except for altering the medium and enlarging the scale to make the surface details more visible. She then placed each figure in a seashell selected to complement it. Each of the figures shown in its shell is a complete sculpture and can be compared with its original artifact.


The exhibition asks, “Can artistic interpretation and scientific investigation co-exist?” The answer is a resounding “yes” as the goal of archaeologist and artist alike is to “ponder the imponderable, to get into the mind of the long-dead creator,” offers Roderick McIntosh, Yale professor of anthropology and curator-in-charge of anthropology at the Peabody. “Being excited to wonder about the ineffable – daring to imagine that one human being might delve inside the mind of another human being who lived 100 generations ago – might just be the key to being human,” declares McIntosh. Kavanagh attempts just that with her creations.


Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh is an award-winning American sculptor, New Haven born. She taught herself to carve stone in the Modernist tradition of Moore, Hepworth and Arp, eventually developing a signature style of her own characterized by rounded, sensual shapes. She has exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the Peabody-Essex Museum.