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Fifty Thousand Years Of Carved Ivory

The little ivory Venus of Lespugue, carved from a mammoth tusk by a French caveman some 50,000 years ago, still holds her slim shoulders erect above the heavy curves of her fecund body. Minerals have tinted her a fossilized blue. But the simple design of her carving is more modern than the "young" ivory Snake Goddess from Minoan Crete in Boston's Museum, or the recent (by comparison) Ming Goddess, Kwan Yin, time-browned in her cultured restraint among the Chinese ivory carvings of Chicago's Natural History Museum.

Medieval Byzantium and Gothic Europe carved Virgin and Child and scenes from the Nativity, Annunciation and Passion; Orientals carved their Buddha, eighteen Yohan, eight Immortals, and scenes of their religious symbolism. Primitive man honored his gods in ivory, as the elephant tusks carved with man and beast from the ju-ju sacrificial altars in Southern Nigeria testify.

For though ivory darkens to yellow and brown with the years, it takes on a glowing patina and its grain shows clearer and lovelier. Its worst destroyer is the sudden draft or temperature change. A little dampness is good for it.

Ivory carves into minute details in cleancut, sharp-edged lines. Its tinted and pressed imitations in celluloid, bakelite, and milk casein do not. Ivory has great resilience. Thin strips or threads of it make cruel whips, or may be woven into fans of enduring beauty.


So long-lived is ivory that prehistoric mammoth tusks, surface browned and even spotted through, are dug in Siberia and traded to the world's ivory centers.

For ivory can be bleached, tinted, painted, lacquered, carved, and inlaid. It is "antiqued" by steeping it in tea or hay, and crackling with hot water and baking. The ancients softened it and cut the tusks round and round in large sheets to surface Assyrian "ivory couches," make Tyrian "benches of ivory"-see your Bible-, and form the skin portions of Greek gold and ivory chryselephantine gods. The Far East too made ivory palanquins, household items and personal ornament.

Southern man used elephant ivory, but the North hunted the narwhale for its hard ivory "horn" and the walrus for its yellowish tusks. The narrow diameter and long hollow of the narwhale's twisted tusk limited its usefulness, but the soft coarse walrus ivory was easy to dye and carve. Viking, German and Swede, Russian, Tungusian and Eskimo cut and carved their harpoons, snow knives and skin scrapers, needles, combs, and Shaman's medicine hits from this ivory. The Chinese got it in trade and worked it extensively.


Many a mandarin's cricket jar had a green-dyed and carved walrus ivory cover. Many a Manchu lady clasped her two-inch long finger nails about a walrus ivory fan handle.

Ancient Turks, Persians and Arabs traded for walrus ivory from the Northern Bulgars, to make fighting knife handles. Carved, and sometimes hollowed out and lined with gold, ivory gave a better hand grip than metal. Besides, ivory "cured wounds and was an antidote for poison."

Elephant tusks were the choice ivory both for size and for beauty. Their "milled" grain grew in concentric circles like growth rings in trees, giving an enriching pattern and texture to carved ivory gods and ornaments. The Asiatic 'tusk was smaller, softer, and yellower but it had a larger, more noticeable grain.

The African tusk was king for size and endurance though often the grain was scarcely perceptible. But this African ivory furnished Solomon his throne, and made gods, furniture and ornament from Africa to far off China.

The Chinese artists cut the hollow portion of the tusks into great and wonderfully carved vases, smaller brush holders, and arm rests-carving the inside with landscapes left upright when the tusk's outer curve was not needed to steady the wrist of artist or writer. Carved and dyed desk screens; foot measures painted with birds and leaf sprays; costume accessory perfume baskets, pierced to combat summer odors; and nude feminine "doctors' models" with dainty shoes carved on to conceal the bound feet, came from 'this choice ivory. So did the "Ho" tablets, nobility's long narrow, finegrained memoranda and admittance card to royal audience.


Solid portions of the giant elephant tusks furnished Canton artists their "Devil's work balls"-those two to twelve concentric balls carved one within the other by using drills and L-shaped knives. But the strong, solid ivory ends turned to gods, goddesses and holy figures, swayed gracefully to the natural curve of the tusk, and sculptured with masterly simplicity to show the full beauty of the grain.

Japan's ivory artists gained fame for their netsukes, perfect from every angle and with no sharp edges to damage their lacquer Inros. But Japanese Bachiru work of dyed and carved ivory, achieving fine gradation of color tones down to the natural ivory, is marvelous. Their ceremonial tea items receive their finest work.

India and her neighbors long have carved ivory. Sensuous face and figure, lavish lines, and elaborate ornateness are the keynote here.

But the ancient West wanted its ivory colored. The Greeks especially tinted, polychromed, and gilded their ivory gods and personal ornaments. Lapis lazuli, powdered and put in water, gave the ancients a beautiful blue; coral, a lovely pink; cinnabar or iron oxide, red; orpiment or ochre, yellow; copper oxide or malachite, green; soot or burned ivory, black. Colored ivory items from the East still are much collected.


Early Egypt carved her ivory or set it with jewels, and an ivory whip handle shaped like a running horse is as beautiful to us as to its Egyptian carver 3000 years ago. The Romans faced and ornamented their furniture with ivory, and carved boxes, pins and bracelets; but their ivory tablet or diptych, the "gift piece" of that time, was the forerunner of medieval Europe's carved book cover and of our own book form.

Byzantium's religious objects and personal ornaments spread West with pilgrim, trader and Crusader, to decorate Europe's churches and grace the noble and his castle. Medieval elaboration showed in Charlemagne's chess knight mounted on an elephant and followed by courtiers, as well as in the German carved tankards.

Drinking or hunting horns or "oliphants" charmed France and England. Swedish ivory chess sets are famous. So are the Russian brandy cups often decorated with enamels. Jewel boxes and mirror backs, carved with romantic scenes of castle drawbridge, lady and rescuing knight, introduced the Renaissance. Its competing arts brought a decline in ivory carving. France's Dieppe held out as Europe's leading ivory center, and carved its now famous ivory fan for Marie An'toinette's baby son.

Little art ivory is produced today except by the Far East, and by Alaska's Eskimos. They still carve and incise their reindeer, polar bear, seal and walrus on ivory tools, weapons and ornaments which adoring tourists avidly collect.

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