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at the Art Institute


at the Art Institute

Among the many masterpieces on view at the Art Institute’s exhibit of pre-Columbian art, “The Ancient Americas,” four are particularly potent examples of this art’s “cosmic,” outward-reaching aspects. At the center of a gold sun mask (Ecuador, La Tolita) is a moderately stern face; from three sides of the face shoot out golden zigzag snakelike rays, each much longer than the face is wide; at the end of each intact ray (a few are broken) is a human face. While the central mask-face stares directly at the viewer, entering, even violating, his space, the rays capture even more attention: each leads the eye outward, beyond the boundaries of the piece and in a slightly different direction, pointing to all the surrounding space except that directly below–which was perhaps not thought of as being in the realm of the sun. But the rays’ jagged paths deny the eye a simple journey to some invisible beyond; instead the viewer feels the entire space charged with a powerful vibrating energy.

A similar effect is achieved in three dimensions by a sculpted-stone fire serpent Xiuhcoatl (Mexico, Aztec, Tetzcoco) that lies vertically against a stone block, its tail above its head, its fierce mouth facing the viewer. The body forms an S, giving the effect of a dynamic entrance from above, with perhaps the hint of a thunderbolt.

Even more spectacular is a ceramic pedestal bowl depicting a dancer wearing a crocodile mask (Panama, Cocle). At the bowl’s center the dancer’s body and limbs form vivacious curves, while surrounding the figure is a dense swirl of lines, circles, and featherlike shapes that seem to emanate from it, echoing and expanding its implied movement so that the whole piece vibrates ecstatically, with a complexity akin to that of polyphonic music.

Finally, consider a ceramic vessel depicting a seated chieftain in ceremonial dress (Peru, Nazca). A large, rounded body with vestigial legs supports a head wearing a fox mask, crowned by a similar fox mask above. The chief’s body is painted in stunningly rich colors with a dense near chaos of additional masks, trophy heads, and abstract forms. The mixture of deities and vanquished enemies that cover this figure suggests a ruler who has incorporated into himself a good part of the known world.

This is an art totally at odds with our own tradition of the purely aesthetic object. These works cannot be appreciated quietly, passively, for their plastic and formal values alone. To look at this art fully and honestly is to see and feel how, even in the aestheticizing and confining glass cases and neutral spaces of a modern museum, the work is constantly projecting its effects outward, into the surrounding space and into the viewer’s space and life. It is a tribute to the integrity and mastery of these artists that works made for use–albeit in highly ritualized and deeply religious civilizations–retain an enormous, outward-reaching, almost incantatory power when seen outside their original contexts.

These cultures had a worldview that, insofar as it can be reconstructed from their art and other evidence, is very different from the complex and compartmentalized philosophies common to industrialized societies. Humans, animals, plants, earth, water, and sky were all elements of a continuum of being. Thus not only did humans wear animal masks, but beings were often depicted as part human, part animal. A wonderful Peruvian ceramic Nazca vessel depicts a composite fish, feline, and human figure. A ceramic vessel in the shape of a seven-peaked mountain (Peru, Moche) is painted with priestly figures, and at each of the seven peaks are snail shells (it seems that land snails were ritually hunted in the surrounding mountains). Vessels in the form of roots and fruits and a large stone sculpture of a conch shell–far larger than actual size–further testify to the importance these cultures gave other living things.

Images of living beings are also commonly combined with abstract, often geometrical, patterns. Some scholars think that many of these were inspired by patterns in nature, or had symbolic significance; but it’s impossible to know this with certainty. For the viewer today objects like the ceramic woman chewing coca (Peru, Nazca), with its repeated stairlike patterns covering the woman’s rounded body, have a strange and enigmatic beauty. A ceramic bowl depicting an antelope on a mountain (New Mexico, Mimbres) shows the antelope perched on an abstract cliff with a stairlike underside above a complex pattern of repeated geometrical forms. By placing the repeated patterns at varying angles, the artist creates an irregular, almost musical rhythm. Whatever the pattern may symbolize (a wall label suggests clan affiliation), it seems to take the antelope out of any specific natural context and place it in a landscape so various and complex it might stand for a whole different realm–a man-made landscape, a civilized world.

Indeed, as several scholars in the exhibit’s fascinating, superbly illustrated catalog point out, in many of these civilizations the capital city stood for the whole cosmos, affirming for its people their special, chosen nature. Within some of these cities a central area (and often at the center of that area a main temple) also stood for, via its architecture and orientation to the land, the world. Many of the abstract patterns in this art resemble the often rectilinear plats of the ancient cities. More generally, the patterns frequently are so rich and complex as to suggest they were meant–and can certainly be seen today–as representations of a whole world. In the superb ceramic Plate of the Sun (Guatemala, Peten, Tikal), the sun’s orb is split in half by a rectangle of complex abstract patterns, perhaps suggestive of an overhead view of a sacred temple.

A corollary of the belief that one’s own civilization is the cosmos, or at least occupies its center, is the belief that others are inferior, and the history of pre-Columbian cultures is not without bloodshed, conquest, and enslavement. Images of chiefs frequently include fierce-looking birds, bats, or other creatures welded to the chief’s body, enhancing the ruler’s power. Ruler’s bodies are often festooned, as in the example cited earlier, with the severed heads of the conquered. But what makes not only conquest but civilization possible is a mastery of the forces of nature, and milder images tie the land’s fecundity to human fertility. Thus a ceramic vessel with seed motif (Peru, Chavin, Cupisnique) is covered with breastlike budding pods, while a ceramic female figure seated on a harvest of manioc roots (Ecuador, Jama-Coaque) depicts the manioc roots as bulging out phallically from under her dress, or as if they had just emerged from her womb.

Many objects project such fierce, raw power as to suggest that the viewer is meant to cower in fear before them. Used in rituals or to adorn temples, these presumably helped to keep members of these usually hierarchical societies in line. A carved-stone invocation of a royal ancestor (Guatemala, Maya, Yaxchilan) depicts a snake turning into a warrior who points his spear at a woman kneeling below him. The intensely rhythmic organization of the sculpted forms gives the work a directness, beauty, and brutality that impress themselves strongly on the viewer.

Even harsher are those works that directly confront the viewer. Often a terrible stare seems to violate the viewer’s autonomy. A ceramic fire-god effigy censer (Guatemala, Maya, Peten, Tikal) has eyes all the more terrible because they’re invisible–covered by petals. The figure offers the viewer a severed human head. The god’s open mouth displays four teeth, small heads are carved elsewhere on the body (again, power gained through incorporation of others), and the crotch is covered by an even fiercer face, mouth open wide.

These are not the sort of pleasant, decorative objects many museumgoers expect to see: there are no elegant miniature rooms, no beautiful Degas dancers here. This is an art of life and death, of fertility and conquest, of blood and human sacrifice. It might be possible to walk by the fire god quickly, notice the elegance of its form, feel a slightly dark mood similar to that brought on by a brooding Courbet landscape, and move on; but if you stand and stare at such an object, look at all of it, and look again, the object will do its work on you over time, it will stare back, it will incriminate you in its belief system, and all of a sudden you are–in your mind’s eye at least–on the floor before it, praying to it not to kill you. The catalog essays stress, not unreasonably, the integrated, almost ecological worldview of these peoples. But perhaps influenced by current anti-European, pronative attitudes, they downplay the brutal and terrifying nature of some of this art.

By combining my perception of some of these works as terrifying with the knowledge that these were hierarchical, often violent societies, I’m attempting to find a historical explanation for my own responses. But no one can ever really know with certainty the intent of these objects, nor the ideologies of the societies that made them. Several catalog essays describe human sacrifices as affirmations of human beings’ place in nature and in the continuous cycle of birth, life, and death. They may be, but I’d want to see interviews with a whole bunch of sacrifice victims before arriving at a thorough assessment. And some of the texts describing this art suggest that even the experts disagree on fundamental questions of interpretation. A catalog essay on Teotihuacan art ties its use of repetition to a prevailing “communal ideology very different from the dynastic, status-oriented emphasis characteristic of other Mesoamerican cultures.” Meanwhile a wall label suggests that the Teotihuacan “passion for order and the hierarchical control of space reflected the stratification of society.” These two interpretations don’t exactly reinforce each other; and both seem highly speculative at best.

I don’t mean to suggest that the aggressive, subjugating quality in some of this art diminishes its value. For me, an artwork that’s invasive, scary, even evil can be as valuable, and moving, as the most benevolent Monet landscape. Each teaches us something about our history and ourselves. For me, to view an object that so violates my own autonomy, whose power is projected under my skin, is to be reminded of, and learn something about, some of my earliest memories and most basic fears. It also gives me a vision of the invasive side of civilizations that see each individual primarily as part of one entity.

Whenever something is gained in art, something else is lost. If the balanced, distanced, windowlike quality of European Renaissance art invited the viewer to participate or not as she liked, and if the rationality of Renaissance perspective invited the viewer to engage in a dialogue almost as an equal with the image, so too the detachment of such imagery led to an aestheticization of art that finally separated it from life. Pre-Columbian art reminds one of a time in which art, life, culture, nature, architecture, and landscape were conceived as an integrated whole. It goes right to one’s gut. If Rembrandt’s gaze at the viewer in one of his self-portraits encourages us to see his eyes as windows on the invisible soul, the eyes of the ceramic ritual vessel depicting a mask of Tlaloc (Mexico, Aztec, Tenochtitlan) cut right through me, push me back, tell me to cower before it.

This exhibit is the Art Institute’s way of celebrating the encounter, 500 years ago, between Columbus and the New World. And it seems to be a far more appropriate celebration than several other attempts. The National Gallery’s “Circa 1492” exhibit contained acres of great art but combined works from China, Japan, Europe, Korea, and the New World; it lacked focus and ultimately seemed an ironically fitting “booty of the world” show. Here, Chicago curator Richard Townsend selected only certain Amerindian cultures, making it possible to explore each in some depth. And in fact the art of each culture is quite distinct, as visitors to the exhibit will quickly see; but in this review I’ve chosen to focus on similarities.

Despite the exhibit’s appropriateness there are ironies and problems inherent in the enterprise that can have no cure but should perhaps be more openly acknowledged. The central irony, of course, is that the industrialized culture that produced this exhibit is descended from the one that destroyed the civilizations on view. Nor is this a first in the museum world. Only recently a hugely popular exhibit on Jewish civilization was mounted in Berlin. While such an exhibit seems a fine idea, I couldn’t help being reminded that Hitler had planned to construct a Jewish museum after he’d murdered all the Jews and won the war. That Hitler’s museum would have been a defamatory abomination and the present “Americas” show is if anything a little too laudatory doesn’t negate the fact that almost all museums seem to have an easier time dealing with dead artists and dead civilizations than with the messy uncertainties of the living.

The way this work is presented also seems at times to deny the living meaning it had for those who created and used it. As is generally true of museum shows, objects intended for specific uses in sacred rituals or everyday life are presented as if they were modern artworks: flat on the wall or in glass cases, carefully and evenly lit. I should hasten to say that I propose no alternatives; such display methods have evolved because they offer the best way to see the work clearly. What I missed were repeated emphatic messages, perhaps in the wall texts and introductory slide show (few museum visitors will read the catalog), that this art was not intended to be seen as the museum is presenting it.

Most striking in this regard are the Mimbres ceramics. Most are irregularly cracked and have been glued back together. The catalog suggests that they were broken intentionally, for reasons now unknown, before being placed in tombs; this information is not in the wall labels. While I’m pleased to see the beautiful images on these plates reassembled, it needs to be prominently acknowledged how they were last left to the world, or presented to the gods; drawings, if any are available, of the tombs in which they were found would be helpful.

In fact several different cultures have traditions of creating works not intended to be seen by other humans. Medieval Europeans referred to architectural details high up on cathedrals as intended “for the greater glory of God,” and I have seen sacred Hindu theater in which certain dances are performed behind a screen, shielded from the audience’s view; these dances were intended only for Krishna. Perhaps these Mimbres ceramics–whether made for use and later broken and buried or made expressly for burial–were intended in their final form to serve a similar function. We can never know, but my appreciation of them was deepened once I learned that they had been left intentionally as fragments.

Similarly, while the catalog does a fine job of describing the integration of art, culture, architecture, and landscape in all of these societies, and while the exhibit does include some superb large photographs of key sacred sites, it would be easy for the casual visitor to miss the point of the exhibition’s subtitle–“Art From Sacred Landscapes”–entirely. Perhaps a less bland introductory slide show would help, one that offered more specific information on the relationships between the objects and their cultures, and between the architecture and the land. Anyone who’s been to any of these sacred sites can testify to the utter inadequacy of even the best photography or most lucid text in conveying the integrated relationship of buidings and landscape: mention of that inevitable inadequacy would have been, at the very least, appropriate.

It would have been appropriate, too, to state in the wall text that the three elegant obsidian “sacrificial knives” (Mexico, Aztec) were used in human sacrifice, as the catalog states. While some of us would give anything to see some of the masks on display used in a ritual dance, few if any really want to see such knives used as intended. Still, it’s important for the museumgoer to understand the uses that these, and the other objects, were meant for.

Most of these are quarrels I’ve had, in greater or lesser degree, with every museum show of non-Western art I’ve ever seen. And they involve omissions that if corrected might deepen the viewer’s experience of the work–they’re certainly not flaws that should discourage a visit. “The Ancient Americas” is a show that operates on the highest level; I found it profoundly moving. Whatever one might feel about the aggression in some of the works, many–including some of the fiercest–have an internal complexity and ecstatic formal articulation worthy of the highest art from any culture.

Nowhere is this greatness more consistently to be found than in the textiles, both in “The Ancient Americas” and in the pre-Columbian works in the first half of the “Mexican, Central & South American Textiles” exhibit, drawn entirely from the Art Institute’s permanent collection.

These works, which the catalog suggests were made by women, carry the artwork-as-entire-cosmos idea to a stunning extreme. In a mantle fragment from the “Americas” show (Bolivia, Huari) patterns of squares repeat according to no obvious system. In an “Americas” tunic (Peru, Huari), a grid of shapes presents the viewer with a design of bewildering complexity; each pattern is repeated a number of times, but with ever-varying colors. In the “Textiles” show a particularly stunning fragment (Peru, South Coast, Inca) about four inches wide by eighteen inches long is divided into tiny rectangles, most about one inch square, each with an abstract design within. These designs repeat, sometimes systematically, sometimes less so, but the richness of detail is dazzling; the mixture of repetition and surprise in all three works gives them the completeness of entire worlds.

Many of the abstract shapes in the textiles seem drawn from nature, or perhaps in the case of the more rectilinear shapes, from the architecture or layout of cities. One work that suggests the link between abstract and representational shapes is a covering cloth (Peru, Central Coast, Chancay) in the “Textiles” show: thin white threads limn a delicate fish- or birdlike shape over a dark background. But neither the completeness nor the suggestiveness of the abstract patterns is lost in the more representational works. In one “Textiles” fragment (Peru, Central Coast, Pachacamac) a series of very short lines meet at steplike right angles to make not an abstract pattern but a fierce, staring central figure, familiar in its impact from the masks and ceramic heads. But the figure is composed entirely of these right-angled lines, as if he’d grown out of, or been inherent in, the complex rectilinear patterns of the other cloths.

A characteristic of most of these textiles is the complex interplay of variation and repetition, of symmetry and asymmetry. A panel from a loincloth (Peru, North Coast, Chimu) repeats the small, stern face of some ruler or warrior many times in a grid. The color of his headdress alternates between red and tan, but a few times there are two or three tans in a row; and once the headdress is blue. Indeed, the geometrical designs on many of the sculptures and ceramics and on an exquisite pair of ear spools (Bolivia, Huari/Tiwanaku) can be similarly described.

Rebecca Stone-Miller, in her excellent “Americas” catalog essay, identifies certain disruptions in the regular pattern as an intentional breaking of the rules, a planned interjection of chaos. One interpretation she offers is that these cultures, whose lives depended on the order and predictability of nature, the rains, the seasons, also knew that nature could be completely unpredictable. She further ties the occasional disruptive use of blue to the rareness of blue dye.

While her insights are readily confirmed in the loincloth and in other works in both shows, I believe that these disruptions are also metaphors for an essential quality in virtually all these works. Even when the repetition seems rigid, it cannot be geometrically perfect in these handwoven works; the shapes will always vary a bit with each repetition; the lines will never be perfectly straight. The weavers knew this, and I believe made it a part of their aesthetic; just as the colors may vary within a work though the design is repeated, so the design itself will always vary–ever so slightly, or quite obviously. In a tunic (Peru, Huari) in the “Americas” exhibit, the same few shapes are repeated throughout, with some color variations (which also repeat). The piece’s ecstatic beauty comes partly from the startling, just-at-the-edge-of-representational quality of the forms, partly from the stunning overall design, but partly too from the irregularity of the repeating lines and shapes, as if each “repetition” reflected the unpredictability of human movements, growth, and breath. There is, in ways that cannot be logically explained, a quality to the shapes themselves, and to the way they are juxtaposed, that always surprises. Even when a pattern repeats almost exactly, it never looks quite the same. In this sense, the best of these textiles seem genuinely alive.

My favorite among the textiles–and as great a work as any in either show–is the huge tunic in the “Americas” exhibit depicting an enclosure of felines and an assembly of figures (Peru, Huari). The “felines” are actually fairly abstract arrangements of circles and lines of different colors, enclosed by a triple-bordered square near the top of the piece. All around is a huge gridlike array of diverse human figures, animals, and abstract shapes. Several different symmetries are at work. The left side of the feline enclosure is roughly symmetrical with the right, and the left side of the cloth below the enclosure is symmetrical with the right–though in both cases there are considerable, apparently nonsystematic variations in color. But the design to the left of the enclosure is upside-down symmetrical with the design to the right, while the small area above the enclosure, in which all the figures appear upside down, is once again symmetrical.

The variety and complexity of the shapes and colors in this large-scale work suggest that the complete “world” in many of the other pieces has been taken to its logical conclusion: if some of the fiercest god images seem to burst their physical confines and enter the viewer’s space, so this tunic transcends the idea of a cloth, or an image, to become an environment in itself. A viewer could become lost within it for some time and go out into the real-life city and feel no increase–if anything, a diminution–of complexity. If one imagines that the “enclosure” symbolizes a city center, a plaza, or the central temple, the identification of textile with cosmos becomes even stronger.

I didn’t much care for a number of the pieces in the second half of the “Textiles” show, which is drawn from the last two centuries. Too often motifs and styles seemed borrowed from other works, other cultures; even if one hadn’t seen that specific design, it seemed one had seen others like it too often. A number of abstract striped fabrics, mostly Bolivian, are quite strong, however. A ceremonial cloth (Aroma Province, La Paz, second half 19th century) displays a series of stripes of varying colors and widths. The design is strictly symmetrical, and the mechanical loom makes possible completely straight lines, but the combination of colors and widths has some of the surprising originality, the feeling of a variety so intense as to transcend design-as-decoration, of the earlier work. Equally strong is a tunic (Peru, about 1900) in which three sets of narrow design-filled stripes enclose a series of right-angled lines, echoing the stair-step motif of earlier art. The right-angled line design repeats again and again, but in wildly different sizes: once again we have the “cosmic” mixture of repetition and variation, or predictability and unpredictability.

At the time of Columbus’s first landing one of the greatest of German artists was beginning his career. His work displays an unequaled precision of line; his forms, which are always representational, have a feeling of absolute physicality. At naturalistic representation of a kind unknown to the Amerindians he is unsurpassed; to look at his rocks or trees is almost to touch them. His work also has a coolness, a balance, an intellectual precision characteristic of the Renaissance. In 1520, in Brussels, Albrecht Durer had his own first encounter with some early booty from the New World and wrote this in his diary:

“There I saw the things brought to the Emperor from the new land of gold: a sun made of gold one arm’s length wide, and a moon, all of silver, of the same size . . . as well as all types of arms used there, harnesses, blowguns, wonderful shields, strange garments, bedcovers, and all types of wonderful things made for human use. . . . And I have never seen anything in my whole life that has cheered my heart as much as these things. In them I found wonderfully artistic things and admired the subtle genius of the men from these strange lands.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Art Institute of Chicago, Dirk Bokker.