PRINT November 1963

Pre-Columbian Art

ONE OF THE MOST EXTENSIVE EXHIBITIONS of Pre-Columbian art ever to be seen in this area was recently exhibited at the Otis Art Institute Gallery. This exhibition has a double point of view in its orientation—artistic and ethnological. The pieces, in this atmosphere, have difficulty in emerging into the world of fine art. That takes standard fine art display techniques. There are only a handful of truly great works of art in the show at Otis, but the fact that they are present gives much merit to the show and makes the remainder of the exhibition a splendid foil against which to view these high spots. The oldest Pre-Columbian dealers in the country, with 30 years of dedication to this subject, the Stendahl family, have supplied the lion’s share of the pieces, and they have worked personally with Wayne Long, the distinguished director of the Otis Gallery, in a fine job of joyous installation. Although the majority of selections are from the Stendahl Galleries, other Los Angeles galleries and private Los Angeles collectors have generously loaned their high spots to this public show. All of the separate cultures that make up the Pre-Columbian world are represented in the current show, from the first sculpted pieces in clay by the original people from Messa America—the archaic or pre-classic classifications—to the last stone carvings done by the Aztecs as the Spanish were landing on the Caribbean shore with Cortez about to start one of the world’s most exciting adventures.

The overcrowding of this material in the two connecting galleries at Otis prevents the individual pieces from being shown off at their best, but the interplay of material creates an impact of Pre-Columbian atmosphere that is very thrilling to behold and acts as a kind of pedestal of Pre-Columbian spirit upon which a particular piece of sculpture can be set off and compared with other pieces. Over 5,000 pieces range in size from figurines of a few inches to a stunning display of five or six life-sized clay figures from Vera Cruz. The display in groupings and mocked-up village scenes does give one, eager to study and learn and hungry to see as much material as possible, a tremendous opportunity to compare and evaluate. The wealth of material in this show covering 3,000 years of creative Pre-Columbian life produces an atmosphere peculiarly and specifically Pre-Columbian upon which we can conduct an adventure in searching for the highlights in terms of fine art. Most of the entries consist of ancient mortuary or grave offerings that were buried with the dead and are of such appropriate size, although in the Aztec and Houstec sections, the sculpture is from above ground, and originally adorned the architecture from those areas.

The exhibition is particularly important right now, as the flow of ancient material from the soil of Messa America is slowing down fast, and the existing pieces seem to vanish all too soon from public view. There have been only a handful of really significant “new” pieces to emerge from this soil during the last five years. This always comes as a surprise after all the hectic but fruitful discovery of the previous ten years. So, the rarity of the culture becomes more apparent when we know that Pre-Columbian art isn’t some sort of assembly line production of systematic discovery that will never end. Therefore the current inventory must feed the world’s growing appetite. As we come to realize that the boundaries of the Pre-Columbian cemeteries have been sifted and resifted in the search for material, it becomes rather obvious that the flow of burial material must be close to an end. This is particularly true of the ancient cemeteries in Colima. The ancient burial island of Jaina is dug out of its magnificent Mayan figurines. What new Aztec discoveries will emerge will depend upon the “urban renewal” of the old colonial section of downtown Mexico City and what the new deeper building foundation pits will produce from the ancient city. Tlatilco is finished. All this material is in short supply. In the north of Nayarit there still are unexplored archeological regions from which one hopes some additional great sculpture may emerge. Because only occasional new archeological discoveries are coming about, the fine pieces will be more and more pedigreed by their succession of owners, as in all fields of painting and sculpture.

The separate Pre-Columbian cultures are distinct from each other, but relate to each other, not only geographically, but stylistically. The Aztec material seems the most different in the Pre-Columbian, and this is probably because it was so late and the last major cultural group on the ancient Mexican scene, but careful examination of the Aztec pieces will show the heritage of the earlier Pre-Columbian styles and thus tie it to the larger classification of Pre-Columbian. The similarity of Pre-Columbian art to the general classification of European painting should be made. European painting is a huge classification with culture subdivisions of Italian Primitive painting, Flemish school, 18th-century English portraiture, 17th century Dutch painting, and so forth. The Pre-Columbian world is a total geographical classification of art from a large area before Columbus discovered the New World. Within the greater classification are culture subdivisions such as Archaic Period from the Valley of Mexico, Olmec, Ancient Western Mexico, Zapotec, Mayan, Aztec, and so forth. There is a cultural continuity and unity among pieces from the separate cultures, in terms of the entire Pre-Columbian classification.

With all of the separate cultures of Pre-Columbian art represented in the Otis show, it is the ancient material from Western Mexico and the extensive Mayan figurine section that are the real high spots of the show. The architecture of the Pre-Columbian presented in this current exhibition is in the in the model houses from Nayarit, certain stone bas reliefs that were originally executed for the facades of temples, and one marvelous large fresco from a temple at Teotihuacan. The show of over 5,000 pieces can be said to be mainly the sculptures that were the burial offerings throughout all the Pre-Columbian world. That was the final disposition of the Pre-Columbian for the bowls and figures the artist made. That is how they come to have survived until today, as they have remained undisturbed and safely stored in the ground until the present.

One great difference between ourselves and these ancients is the place of the artist in society. The ancient artist of course must have had creative urges as intense as that of any great artist even though his work was used for and by the members of his society. But he did not identify himself by using a sign or mark on his creation. No sign or mark has ever been found on any piece of Pre-Columbian sculpture that would identify the artist. Even though the Pre-Columbian sculptor remains anonymous, and we cannot catalog an inventory of any one particular sculptor, yet the artist is very evident in the great works, and not merely as a craftsman, for the manner of his own spirit and inventiveness and style emerge.

There are some contrived but imaginative explorations into the world of ancient ethnology displayed by the spectacular grouping of small figurines into staged village life and activity. Of absolute and unedited correct ethnological presentations are the fantastic house groups from the West of Mexico, reminiscent of other clay house groups from ancient China. These are the “candid camera” shots made of baked clay of active domestic life that revolve around the home. Others are slabs upon which figures have been fixed by the artist in domestic or ceremonial activities, such as funeral processions, ball games, etc., creating a completely accurate record, in three dimensional models, of the ancient life. Occasionally there emerges an absolutely superb house group, for instance one with a series of intricately worked out roof lines with the inhabitants of the house composed and designed and painted in earth colors in a most artful manner. These “Peter Brueghels” of the ancient world sometimes produced a superb genre work of art. Inasmuch as this was conceived and executed by the original Pre-Columbian artist, it is not to be likened to the exhibitor who groups individual figures in a staged mock-up of a village scene. This sort of accurate documentation delights the eyes of the ethnologist and anthropologist, and makes the art of the piece ring true. But at the art exhibition level there must be more separation of the works of art from the ethnological approach. The most superb Pre-Columbian work of art must be permeated by the ethnology of the ancient culture, must have all the obvious archeological connotations, the anthropological denotations. But if the sculpture is to enter the world of fine art, it must stand on its own legs, so to speak. It must be the Art of the Pre-Columbian that interests us at first look and then continues to sustain our interest in mid-20th century, and not merely the ethnology. The point of view that emphasizes the ethnological over the art should have its day in a history and science staging. From the art point of view, we are not so interested in discovering the life, behavior and mores of these ancient people, or even what this sculpture must have meant to them, as we are in evaluating the artist’s handling of his subject and theme to the point where these forms are converted into style, and we see the creative process at work and we conclude that the piece is a work of art.

Head and shoulders above all other Mayan entries is a superb “Priest,” about eleven inches high and splendidly bedecked in all his rococo finery highlighted by traces of delicate Mayan blue coloring. We have an immediate rapport with him because of our own appreciation of the pomp and ceremony and finery of the world of the Roman Pope. Whoever or whatever was the subject of worship by this priest we don’t know, but we have a sensitive feeling for his worship because we do the same thing in our own worship of today.

Contrast him with the pre-classic “Acrobat,” dating no later than 1500 B.C., loaned to the show by the author, dug up in the brick yards just 20 minutes from the main square in Mexico City on the spot where Cortez spent his “noche triste” as he escaped from Montezuma. Everyone young and old loves to laugh and chuckle, and the humor expressed by this performing acrobat is immediately understood by us today. We are reminded of the smell of our own circus tents and sawdust.

This is the universal appeal that strikes a note in the viewer and makes this “Acrobat” such a public pushover throughout the world wherever he is exhibited. The superb lyrical modeling with which the artist executed him, the lack of adornment, that marvelous levitation of the raised leg, the burnished surface, makes for the finest in the Pre-Columbian. There is no such thing as duplicate originals or castings in the Pre-Columbian world of art as there is with a sculptor of today. This is one of four known acrobats, each of which was executed individually and in variations of size.

The Olmec figure with its classic face is another fine piece. Here the universality lies in the voluptuous mouth. The sculptor has given the head half the proportion of the piece, the rest of the body being the other half, and the mouth in turn is about one half of the head. The sensuous lips are curved in a voluptuous expression. The piece is about seven inches tall and is magnificently carved with flowing lines, although the stone itself is not so fine as the similarly carved figure in the British Museum which is carved in transparent jade.

Of the ancient Western section, the Colima representation is the best, but there is a superb seated man from Nayarit, lyrically sculpted in a very contemplative attitude, with a highly refined burnished surface in dark earth-red with some black underpainting. The two great male dogs from the classic period of Colima dating about 600 A.D. are twenty inches tall. Magnificently sculpted in clay, they are two of the four finest dogs to be seen. The dog played a very important part in the life of the ancient Colima people, both in daily and ceremonial life, and the dog theme is the most common used by them. The dogs in the show are superb. Here the sense of the universal reaches out to us—our intuitive response to dog as friend.

The “Portrait of a Youth” loaned by the Pasadena Museum, (the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Staude) is one of two or three greatest of the life-sized baked clay figures from Vera Cruz in existence. In this figure is the highlight of the culture that we thought, until just recently produced only those smiling heads. The Staude figure was sculpted without all the traditional rococo paraphernalia of finery, and the penetrating introspective expression of the face and the exquisite rendering of the expressive hands places this statue among the highlights of the Pre-Columbian world. It is a grey, tannish, sandy color with a matte surface unbelievably large for a fired clay piece.

The superb stone hacha, about fifteen inches tall, represents another aspect of the art that is peculiarly Totonac, the use of a contrived geometric form upon which generally is lavished some theme in a carving of bas relief. They seem to have some particular appeal to us as forms, if we are reminded of the more modern cubists. These original “cubist” artists always worked in one of three shapes, the hacha or triangular axe form, the palma, and the U-shaped yoke. All three forms are in this show, but the high spot of the group, and a real Pre-Columbian high spot, is the hacha into which is carved a magnificent portrait of a chief, adorned with a complicated headdress or helmet of curves and circles in a flowing manner that softens the angular line of the axe form. The profile of the face becomes the hypotenuse of the triangular stone. This “Chief” whose face was carved on this stone around 500 A.D. intrigues us, and we wonder about the land he ruled so long ago.

Mr. Proctor Stafford is an avid collector of the art of Western Mexico and has participated in explorations in many of the areas discussed. The extensive exhibition of Pre-Columbian art on which his essay is based was exhibited at the Otis Art Institute Galleries from September 12 thru October 27, 1963.