Museum displays ancient Mexican figurines
The Art Museum's latest exhibit, "Figures from the
Earth: Ceramic Sculpture from Ancient Mexico" displays sculptures
found in tombs from a period of history spanning the Mexican cultures
of the Olmec to the Toltec (roughly 1300 BC to 1200 AD). The figurines
were most likely meant to aid the deceased in the afterlife. The Zapotec
funerary urns are simply cylinders with modeled decorations depicting
gods or animals and were used as food containers to bury with the dead.
Other figures are supposed to have warded off spirits or foes as in "Two
Fighting Shaman," which depicts two figures in a struggle. This sculpture
also has a large tube coming off the side and probably doubled as a food
Professor of Art History Susan Wegner worked with Caitlin Nelson the Curatorial Assistant and José Ribas, the museum's technician and preparator to organize the exhibit. The set-up highlights contrasts between the changing cultures of the ancient Mexican world. While the figures from these different times have much in common, one senses the continuing innovation of artistic expression. Professor Wegner pointed out that Mayan sculptors used "delicate working of small faces" to mold their tiny dancers.
The costumes are meticulously beautiful and supposedly one
can just barely see where the sculptor left his fingerprint in the headdress.
A neighboring Veracruz example Professor Wegner describes as "vigorous."
This figure is larger, more bold in its movement. It is less intent on
detail but still elegant in its simplicity.
The exhibit also shows the contrasts between archaeological
finds. While many of the figures displayed are near perfect in their wholeness,
Professor Wegner included some which are mere pieces of their original
shape. This reminds visitors that much of ancient art does not survive
to modern times and what is found often comes to us as fragments. A tiny
head is all that's left of a figure from the Toltec culture.
In the center of the exhibit room is a table full of doll-like
figures from the Colima period. These sculptures are referred to by art
historians as "Gingerbread figures," due to their mass generality,
and have been found in the hundreds. Although seemingly like a child's
playthings these figures were likely used for an unknown ritual purpose.
The exhibit was inspired by the generous gift of Mymie L.
Graham. Ms. Graham donated one of the most animated figures in the room,
a "Musical Figure" from the Colima/Late Preclassical/Early Classic
period. His mouth is open in song and his hands are frozen in a gesture
of rhythm. Although all of the sculptures are distant from the art we
usually encounter today, one is still able to appreciate the vibrant expression
of music and artistry these ancient people left us.
Please mark your calendars for the gallery talk, downstairs in the Museum, on February 27 at 4:00 p.m. to hear Professor Susan Wegner speak about the history of these truly wonderful sculptures.