Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Masterpieces from Ancient Mexico at the Art Institute of Chicago

Ballplayers, Gods, and Rainmaker Kings:
Masterpieces from Ancient Mexico
Through January 21,2011

Much of this display repeats the survey of Pre-Columbian cultures that is done more extensively in the permanent “Ancient Americas” exhibit at the Field Museum. But the 13 spectacular pieces from the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia in Mexico City is what makes this show indispensable. There’s a life-size, stone version of the mysterious chac-mool reclining figures that seem to have been so important to Henry Moore. Also included is the waist-high greenstone head of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, whose decapitation by her brother was reprised by the ritual slaughter of captives on the steps of the great Aztec temples.

A few feet away, is the famous Aztec statue of Xochipilli, the god of art, games, beauty, and homosexuality, seated in a trance and moaning under the influence of the psychotropic flowers that ornament his body.

But even more remarkable might be the over 40-inch high terracottas that represented various deities from the 7th through 15th Centuries. How did these enormous, intricate, fragile pieces manage to survive so many centuries of upheaval? Aesthetically, most of the work in this show is not far above the merely functional level of grabbing attention and telling a story.

But the late classic Mayan limestone ballcourt marker from La Esperanza Chiapas is a masterpiece of sacred world art. It’s only 22 inches in diameter, but its carving is monumental, and it’s ring of 12 glyphs is a festival of powerful, virtuosic visual expression that can scarcely be found in the American cultures that followed (including our own)

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