PRINT December 1963

Masterworks of Mexican Art: Pre-Columbian

THE GOVERNMENT AND MUSEUM authorities of Mexico have gathered a traveling exhibition which truly re­flects the grandeur of the arts of the peoples of their country during the last three and one half millennia. No country has ever attempted a similar task with equal success. Only one museum was able to present the incredible array of Mexican works of art to the United States: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, thanks largely to the energetic enthusiasm of Richard Brown, its Director. The four main phases of Mexican arts are presented: those of pre-Hispanic (pre-Colum­bian) and of Spanish-Colonial times, the “fine arts” of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the recent folk arts.

The impact of pre-Columbian arts overshadows the other sections. The pre-Columbian, the largest part of the exhibition, demonstrates the variety of artistic expressions in different regions of Mexico and their changes through the centuries, up to the conquest and the subsequent suffocation of indigenous Mexican Indian creativity. Pre-Columbian arts could not resist after the collapse of pre-Columbian cultures robbed them of their raison d’etre.

What was their raison d’etre? What kind of cul­tures, world views, motivated and inspired the anony­mous artists and artisans to express what they did and to give their works the particular forms we now admire? We do not know the answers. Archaeology unearths the material relics of a culture, attempts to deduce from the objects the nature and the values of the culture which produced them, but the results often remain theories, not facts. The catalog to the exhibition occasionally obscures our ignorance by interpreting the significance of a given piece as if it were established. The chronicles of Conquistadores and a few 16th-century manuscripts by christianized Indians give some insight into Indian cultures about the time of the conquest. More often than not they record phases of the pageantry of ceremonialism rather than its underlying beliefs and philosophy. Such facts as they contain provide some clues for interpreting still more remote periods. The pre-Hispanic literature, which might have answered many of our problems, exists only in fragments. Spain burnt, as works of the devil, whatever books were found as she smashed shrines and temples, paintings and cult statues in the religious fanaticism of those times—the same fanaticism which in our country in­spired certain missionaries to feed bonfires with African Negro or New Guinea sculptures.

When it is realized how intimately religion and beliefs in the supernatural were interlaced with every aspect of life, it must be assumed that pre­-Columbian sculpture was predominantly related to the cults of the deities and the spirits of the dead, but the nature of many of the deities, as manifested in their images, is difficult to comprehend. Be­wildered, one sees a magnificent stone statue of a woman with flaccid breasts, her face that of a skull, her hands and feet the claw-set paws of a jaguar and with a skirt formed by intertwined serpents, and one learns one looks at an Aztec Earth-Mother-Goddess, giver of life and sustenance. Xipe, male god of corn, on which life depended, is shown sewn into a mask and garment which are the skin of a flayed human sacrificial victim, the new gown the god of maize and spring received: the renewal of life follows death; death is the pre-requisite of life. The Earthmother­—symbol of ever-new life, stands as symbol of death, of the dead who return to her womb. Death and life alternate like the seasons, like night and day, sun and moon. The one depends on the other in a constant rhythm. Myths tell, however, how Aztec gods had to sacrifice themselves, their blood, their hearts, in order to be able to create, to insure regeneration. And man, too, must repay, must do as the gods did, in order to play his role in the basic and mysterious order of things. The catalog gives an idea of these complex Aztec concepts. Their roots apparently went far back into pre-Aztec antiquity and spread over a great many sections of Mexico. Comparable motifs, certain icono­graphical and other features in the imagery of earlier epochs and of different peoples permit such con­clusions. Besides, most of these cultures shared other traits: hieroglyphic writing; the raising of temples or shrines on pyramidal structures laid out around one or more plazas; calendrical systems based on observation of the movements of celestial bodies and calculations presupposing knowledge of mathe­matics and arithmetic. Moreover any visitor to the show can detect the sporadic occurrence of stylistic correspondences between the arts of different peo­ples. These are among the facts which make it clear that there existed a give and take of ideas and stimuli between the different regions of Mesoamerica. (This term defines the area occupied by the most advanced Northamerican Indian cultures. It encom­passes Guatemala, El Salvador and much of Hon­duras, while the exhibition limits itself to works of art found within the boundaries of modern Mexico).

Pre-Columbian Mexican and the other Mesoameri­can cultures indeed share many characteristics. Yet it doesn’t require laborious study to gain competence in diagnosing the particular region or culture from which a given sculpture or other work of art had sprung: each of the cultures, and their arts, had developed its own unmistakable individuality. With almost reckless abandon, Mexican institutions and private collectors sent out examples of the supreme artistic achievements from all the different regions and pre-conquest periods for us to view, a selection of masterpieces which makes it seem presumptuous to single out specific pieces.

Great emphasis is placed on the earliest known phase of Mexican Indian arts, a phase which began with the first ceramics and statuettes in solid clay in many areas of Mesoamerica reaching its artistic culmination in Tlatilco, a place which is now subur­ban Mexico City, in about 1,000–800 B.C. A large and excellent selection of figurines less than 8 inches in height reflects an intense joie de vivre in their delightful forms. The variety of animated poses sug­gest dancing and acrobatic contortions. Most are females, scantily dressed, if at all, vibrating with feminine allure: no doubt the sculptors were male. Striking clay masks differ radically from the charm of the figures in their stress on the fearsome, the grotesquely demonic dark side of life. One meets here the first manifestation of the Indians’ concern with the dualism in nature, in life, which became characteristic of so many subsequent forms of Mexican Indian arts. Last but not least, the purity of the shapes of Tlatilco’s long-necked bottles introduces the feeling for form and design one admires in most pre-Columbian arts.

The hollow statuette of a seated baby from the Feuchtwanger Collection shows us the epitome of an art which is different in concept and style al­though it too was encountered in Tlatilco graves of about 800–600 B.C. Unique in artistic quality, it typi­fies one aspect of a multi-faceted style complex which had its center far away from the Tlatilco, in the border country between the Mexican states of Ta­basco and Veracruz. The modern name of the place in Tabasco where archaeologists found the richest, most varied expression of this complex is La Venta, and it was chosen as the name of the style: “La Venta style.” More often it is called “Olmec” after a people known to have lived in that region in the last pre­conquest centuries. It remains unknown, of course, who the inhabitants were during the earlier half of the first millennium B.C. The exhibition demonstrates, with many of the finest known pieces in clay, jade, basalt and other stone, the range of their artistic expression: sculpture in the round and in relief, on a colossal and a miniature scale; linear designs; unadorned shapes of elegant simplicity; representa­tion for its own sake and decorative adaptation of a design to a given area. The subject matter includes babies and infantile beings, gnomes, man, fantastic man-jaguar hybrids and designs which appear non­representational to our eyes. Fierce aggression or innocent charm and repose animate the faces. Some impress as individualistic human portraits, others radiate the supernatural power of a god or demon. A feeling for design is always strongly in evidence; yet, no matter how controlled, or how strongly the features may be abstracted to a pattern, each line remains vibrant with tension.

Spellbound under the impact of La Venta-Olmec arts, one still cannot help wondering about the un­known history of those works. They have no known antecedents; they evidence incredible technical skill from the beginning on, especially the jade objects. Only a highly organized society could have mobilized the concerted mass effort required for the transport of the tons of basalt to the stoneless home of the La Venta sculptors. La Venta was a swamp providing a most inclement environment for the birth of a civilization. Vast sections of the American earth are as yet untouched by archaeologists and may hold the answer to questions as to its origin. Meanwhile one must be on guard against irresponsible speculation. Not even the dates of the stupendous works the show includes are known with certainty although 800 to 600 or maybe, 400 B.C. is the time span to which many scholars assign the colossal head, the great jades, and the La Venta style ceramics of Tlatilco. One is still far from grasping either any sequence of evolu­tionary changes in style or the causes for the spread of many aspects of the style complex from Tlatilco to El Salvador. While various features of La Venta-Olmec arts, like the colossal heads, are only known from the small area we now call the heartland of the elusive La Venta culture, many others recur more or less prominently in the arts of other regions and later periods, such as motifs like the man-jaguar and art forms including the relief-covered stela. One is inclined to regard the La Venta culture as the matrix, the supreme stimulator, of the growth of the later Mesoamerican high cultures one has labeled as “classic”: the Maya and of El Tajin, of Monte Al­ban, Teotihuacan and others. Each of them had its individual character, as this show brings out so well, had presumably many different roots, was molded by the peculiarities of the land in which it grew and by the individuality of the people who created it. The observer can sense, nevertheless, many links to La Venta: in the near-ubiquitous occurrence of the jaguar motif, in the widely and masterfully practiced use of jade carving, in the form given to the mouth, be it in the oldest ceramic sculptures shown from Monte Alban or the famous jade vase from Teotihua­can, in the baroque, demonic countenance of a Maya god as he stares from the wall of the great clay cylinder from Palenque or, painted, from the vault of Bonampak, in the movement, the torsion and power of the mutilated, virile stone statue of the Maya of Campeche, among the greatest sculptures in the exhibition.

A will towards more simplified, geometric, angular, even “cubistic” shapes can be perceived in certain early Teotihuacan sculptures such as the structure of the old fire god supporting a basin, or the im­personal quality of some of the stone masks. This tendency or style current may have emanated from some place in Northern Mesoamerica and may still underly the geometric order on the sculptures of the late (“post-classic”) Toltecs and the peoples within the sphere of Toltec influence. The great basalt table or seat in the shape of a coyote, evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright and poured concrete, is among the most exciting sculptures of this kind displayed. It was found near Lake Patzcuaro with a more famous type of Toltec style sculpture, a blocky figure of a reclin­ing male personage, a Chacmool, the head sharply turned at a right angle—harsh, uncompromising, of brute, barbaric strength. One is able to compare this Chacmool with the one from Chichen Itza, the ancient Maya center in Yucatan which had become a strong­hold of Toltec culture by force of arms or religion about 1000 A.D. It exemplifies “Maya-Toltec” style, or Toltec style as modified by older modes of Maya imagery. The Toltec system of planes and axes form­ing right angles is left intact but the surfaces are softer, more refined, more sensuous. As sculpture it seems weaker even if it may have greater formal beauty than its counterpart from the less civilized West.

It is the individuality of the arts of each of the different Mesoamerican peoples which commands our attention beyond all questions as to the origins and interrelations of styles and cultures. One admires the variety within each of these “cultures” and is struck by the great number of unique masterpieces which frustrates many attempts at categorization. One remembers the Palenque Maya head of stucco for the sheer beauty of its lines, for its nobility, dignity and spiritual quality; the smug and earthy grin of the Maya matron from Jaina, this fragmentary minia­ture in clay in its delicately modeled realism. The majestic wreck of a stone sculpture looms close by, the incarnation of male aggressive furor raised to the level of an elemental force. It seems to come from a different world although it too is Maya. The same applies to the Maya relief from Jonuta with its sensi­tive lines expressive of intense emotion. These Maya sculptures don’t have anything in common with the large stone masks from Teotihuacan. The masks are all based on one design formula in which the human face is reduced to a few elements. But each artist made this schema come to life in his own way. Age­less, impersonal and impassive, the faces appear to have been inspired by ideas far removed from the ephemeral individuality of a person and the fleeting incidentals of everyday existence. These masks, how­ever, may have acquired values in our eyes, which are far removed from the artists’ original intent: they may have lost their painted color, as the colossal Olmec head did, or they may have been encrusted with a mosaic of shell and stone, as the one splendid example still demonstrates. The beauty of the stone from which the mask was carved was then, of course, obscured.

Two very large clay urns in the shape of sharp­-featured heads of deities and a statuette of a man with staring slant eyes, seated in a pose vaguely reminiscent of the “scribes” of ancient Egypt are among the pieces which stand out from the large array of sculptures from Monte Alban. It was the center of another distinct, early culture with great architectural monuments near modern Oaxaca City. Its builders, possibly the ancestors of the Zapotec Indians, became famous for creating ceramics which were hollow sculptures and, at the same time, con­tainers. Many of those of the classic era are domi­nated by a hypertrophy of symbolic, decorative detail. The clean-cut faces in their frozen expression­—entranced, snarling, leering—tend to be overshadowed by monstrous, feathered headdresses. They often arouse our curiosity as to the meaning of the subject matter depicted and the admiration for the display of craftsmanship rather than our esthetic sensibilities. The same holds true for the miniature sculptures cast in gold by the Mixtecs, neighbors of the Zapotecs, at a much later time, less than two hundred years before the conquest.

Who can fail to respond, however, to the “treas­ures” in clay displayed from Veracruz? To the com­bined sensuous warmth of expression and the formal beauty of lines, of the two seated figures from the Stavenhagen Collection? They might be called the acme of the many masterpieces in clay shown from this region. It is hard to follow the catalog’s sugges­tion and to imagine that these ceramics were products of the same civilization, that of El Tajin, with which three specific kinds of stone sculpture are said to have been associated: the so-called yokes, hachas (“axes”) and palmas. All draw our attention because of the different ways in which these basic shapes have been treated—the one like an ox yoke or massive horseshoe, the other a bilaterally compressed head within a firm outline which suggested to an earlier generation an axe blade, the third an elongated, narrow, palm leaf-like structure. Visually one fails to detect any link between them and the modeled clay figures from Central Veracruz. In this exhibition, one is drawn to the more simplified, “abstract” heads in hacha form. Unreasonably, one wishes a still greater variety of hachas and palmas had been in­cluded. The hacha-heads, man, skull or bird, unques­tionably have roots in early La Venta traditions: in their grandiose conception; in their expression of unearthly power; in the manner in which their given shape was not only decorated but transformed into sculpture without violence to its unknown, presum­ably functional, requirements.

Two sculptures may be singled out from the Huax­tecs, the northern neighbors of the Tajin artists, both because they are perfect examples of their kind and because they show up, once more, man’s acknowledge­ment of the dark and the light, beneficent side of nature. The one is a stone relief of a skull-faced being, sumptuously adorned but abstracted to a complex pattern, rich in detail carving. The other is a half-figure of a goddess, barren of any patterned descriptive detail. The purity of her abstract form is a compelling document of that trend in Huaxtec art which subtly instills some of the warmth of emo­tional content of Central Veracruz into the severe austerity of the Toltec era.

Aztec stone sculpture, one of the climactic high points of the show is represented by many of the most celebrated examples. The joint wealth of artistic achievement of peoples under Aztec domination is gathered in this grandiose finale of Mesoamerican arts. One is struck by the monumentality the most impressive works possess regardless of scale and diversity of conception. The sharp contrasts between them are amazing considering that all of them origi­nated within the last 75 years before the conquest: the coiled, polished serpents in the purity of their closed form; the colossal, crouching jaguar-god, re­cipient of human hearts, in its massive, inescapable power, an exciting sculpture in the unity of form achieved between the sparse modeling of the body and the configuration of the head with its heavy, rhythmic, curves. The famous statue of Xochipilli, The Lord of Flowers, is radically different. A pro­fusion of carved, detailed motifs, such as flowers, covers its surface. The body expresses motion in its realistic pose; the tragic face, the gesture of the arms, the tilt of the head communicate intense emo­tion, as if the god were in a trance which the onlooker feels drawn to share. The figure of a giant-god stands barren of emotion and adornment, abstracted to sharp, clear, unified shapes free of any detail but intense with power. The face remains hidden: a long beak-mask extends forward from the head and was conceived as an integral part of the sculpture so that it is utterly convincing. One feels confronted by a divine presence, more so than with any other sculp­ture on display. (One is grateful that the organizers of the show felt this work had to be included even if only a copy—a perfect one—was available.) Man, not god, is the subject of the basalt “head of a dead man” which represents the height of Aztec realism. It reaches beyond portraiture of a specific victim and embodies the idea of human suffering, of the agony and defiance of death.

The section devoted to the ceramic vessels and sculptures from the West-Mexican states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit gives the impression this West­ern zone had been a world apart until Toltec expan­sion made itself felt there at the end of the first millennium A.D. Well-known to collectors, confusing to art historians, these arts are still unexplored in terms of archaeology. Their beginnings must be dated back at least five hundred years earlier than the labels state, according to research carried out by UCLA after the catalog to the exhibition had been written. It was an art intended for the tomb yet it reflects life more than any other in Mesoamerica. The supernatural, the gods, are not in evidence as far as we can see. Acrobats, warriors, girls engaged in a hair-pulling fight, groups with houses and trees, games and dances and genre scenes of daily life are represented in solid clay, probably a specialized aspect of the early tradition of making statuettes in this medium. Full of motion, action, humor, their subject matter absorbs our interest. The larger, hollow figures still baffle attempts at placing them in any chronological sequence or firmly defined style region. Surfaces are rough or polished, polychromed or un­painted. Rounded, voluminous and attenuated, flat­tened shapes exist. Relative naturalism and most extravagant, imaginative “abstractions” occur, savage caricatures, gentle humor, repellent monstrosities, expressionistic force and monumental dignity. The number of pieces assembled permits one to perceive the wide range in styles and also in artistic quality of these sculptures.

Sculpture has been stressed in these lines, the great beauty of the pottery vessels and many other forms of art has hardly been mentioned. One object however, must be emphasized—an undecorated black polished stone bowl with four feet from Veracruz of uncertain age (300 B.C. to 300 A.D.) If it were the only example of pre-Columbian Mexican arts which had survived into our times, its beauty would proclaim by itself that Indian cultures had produced artists who were great by any standards. Fortunately, the exhibition gives overwhelming evidence of that. It is unthinkable that there will ever again be the oppor­tunity to see as many of the greatest works of the artists from prehispanic Mexico assembled together in the United States.

Ralph Altman is the Curator of Ethnic Collections at the University of California in Los Angeles.