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Unearthing Primitive Treasures

Tough and sometimes strange and threatening, ancient Mexican art has inspired 20th-century artists and designers

A GREAT deal of archaeological work throughout Mesoamerica is not the only reason that the rest of the world has developed a liking and keen aesthetic appreciation of the art of ancient Mexico in our century. There has also been a persistent interest among many 20th-century artists in forms of artistic expression different from the Renaissance tradition so admired in the 19th century. These "other" forms offered fresh stimuli or even a jolt out of tired conventions. This interest started in the later 19t h century, with such instances as Gauguin's fascination with Tahiti.

Mexican art seems, naturally enough, to have held particular meaning for sculptors. British sculptor Henry Moore notably found direct inspiration from Mexican sculpture seen in books and the British Museum. As a young man in the mid 1920s, Moore won a traveling scholarship which took him - against his inclination - to Italy, and here he was exposed to the great figures of the Renaissance first hand. He found the experience unsettling because it set up a conflict between his already established devotion t o primitive art and the potency of the sophisticated Mediterranean tradition.

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In time, Moore was able to turn this conflict to positive use. But after his return from Italy, for about six months, he was unable to work. "Then gradually," he recorded, "I began to find my way back to ... ancient Mexican art...."

Later, in 1960, looking back over his career, he wrote: "It seems to me now that this conflict between the excitement and great impression I got from Mexican sculpture and the love and sympathy I felt for Italian art represents two opposing sides in me, the `tough' and the `tender,' and that many other artists have had the same two conflicting sides in their natures." Certainly Moore believed Picasso to be one such artist.

The varied works shown on these pages come from a major traveling exhibition, "The Art of Ancient Mexico," that recently ended its tour in London after being seen in four other European cities and in Tokyo. These artifacts contain - as the whole exhibition did - the toughness Moore referred to, particularly the ferocious stone jaguar from the Gulf-Coast region and the urn representing the god Xipe from the Oaxaca area on the Pacific side of the Mexico. The latter was found in a tomb in Monte Alban, the c enter - the capital - of Zapotec culture. It was made in the Classic Period, AD 200-900.

In this remarkable clay sculpture can be seen vigorous decorativeness and a solidly based symmetry, which may at first mislead the viewer into not noticing the subject. Originally this work was polychrome, as hints of pigment still show, adding to the sense of exotic beauty.

ButUT the subject, which may be a priest rather than the god himself, has manifestly to do with savage religious beliefs and seems clearly intended to fill the onlooker with awe.

Sonia Lombardo de Ruiz writes in the catalog that the figure "grasps a baton in one hand while the other holds the head of the sacrificed victim whose skin he was to wear." She adds that the "crudity of the ritual ... is represented, to our eyes, with a lively ingenuity" and "... was the product of a deep religious conviction."

Martha Carmona Macias further writes that the mythical deity Xipe Totec was the patron of goldwork, "but was also associated with the process of natural renewal that occurs year after year with the arrival of spring." The skin of the poor victim symbolizes, according to the commentator, "the renewal of the face of the earth" and was used to make a mask for the main figure. Though such practices seem today utterly horrific, the sculpture itself seems surprisingly controlled and even abstract to a consider able degree. Fear and authority are epitomized by it, not suffering.

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In contrast, it might be pointed out that much European art depicts acts of savagery: Crucifixion, for instance, is a frequent subject. The ancient Greek myth of the flaying of the satyr Marsyas, which comes close to the Zapotec sacrificial ceremony represented here, was drawn and painted throughout the Renaissance. Indeed, when it comes to savagery, there is a far greater emphasis on fleshly cruelty in, for example, Titian's most anguished paintings than in the hieratic character of this ancient Mexican


It is energy, however, quite as much as toughness or tenderness that seems to be the compelling motive behind much ancient Mexican sculpture. This is so even when it may, theoretically at least, have closer connections with everyday life than with mythological deities.

The terra-cotta animals frequently sculpted in the Western part of Mexico, partcularly in Colima, have great appeal, though doubtless they were not intended to be charming ornaments. They were among other objects found in burial chambers, and it has been speculated that either they embody some sort of deity, or they were supposed to accompany people in their passage through the underworld in the afterlife.

It is their realism that we are likely to relish. Dogs, particularly little fat ones that also serve as vessels to contain something, clearly come from their maker's familiarity with both their shape and behavior. They are stylized, certainly. But these animals are full of vigor and seem both attentive as they look up at us and ready to spring into action at any moment.

THIS particular one looks as though it might bite - but on the other hand its eagerness could be in the nature of a canine smile. Dog cognoscenti - and the Colima artists were unquestionably that - know that dogs show pleasure as well as aggression by baring their teeth. Either way, these dog ceramics have a rotund realism and a restrained forcefulness that is much stronger than mere charm.

The bottle in the shape of an armadillo comes from a different part of Mesoamerica and from a much earlier period. Whereas the Colima dog belongs to the Classic Period, AD 200-600, this clay piece is Middle Pre-Classic, which means it was made between 1200 and 800 BC. It comes from the Central Highlands area. This creature was part of the fauna that the villagers of that time and place hunted for meat.

Like the much-later dog, this animal must have been a familiar part of daily existence, and therefore suitable as a form on which to model a container. But it probably wasn't made simply for ornamental purposes, since it was the sort of ceramic to be found in burial places where it would have had a religious function. One speculation is that such sculptures represented animal spirits thought to have influence over a person's life.

Among the links forged in our time between European and American art and the art of ancient Mexico was the adaptation of decorative motifs of Aztec or Mayan origin for use in the consciously modernistic Art Deco style of the 1920s and '30s. It is strange that what we have called modern has, in fact, been directly inspired by art of great age, like that of ancient Mexico.

It is the cultural remoteness and unfamiliarity of it that appeals: The visual language is baffling, and the actual use and function of the objects are still largely mystery. But the effect on a sculptor like Henry Moore seems to have been as direct as if artist had spoken to artist over centuries. Moore chose from Mexican art what his own sensibility needed; the Art Deco designers chose a different aspect. This style can hardly be described as tough.

These two 20th-century plunderings suggest the balance in ancient Mexican art between expression and design. There lurks in it plenty that is strange and threatening, but a bold feel for sculptural mass and form controls and simplifies these forces so that they are still and monumental as well as disturbing and expressive. The massiveness and solidity are relieved, often, by vigorously carved or modeled surface decoration.

There is nothing half-hearted or tentative about the best of ancient Mexican sculpture. It is direct and assured - so much so that its energetic inventiveness seems a matter of inevitability.

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