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Art: Hard People, Stark Beauty

5 minute read
Christopher Porterfield

For sheer barbaric brutality, it was hard to beat the Aztecs. They believed their gods required human blood and hearts as sustenance, and they faithfully delivered. Sacrificial victims–often captured enemy warriors–were spread-eagled before temples, and their hearts, still beating, were cut out with flint knives, after which their blood was collected in bowls and their limbs eaten. The Aztecs also offered up their own blood by painfully mutilating their tongues, ears, legs and penises. Even their games were lethal. In one, players tried to move stone balls in the direction they thought the sun was heading. The player who guessed wrong was decapitated.

Unlikely as it seems, these hard, cruel people–who dominated what is now central Mexico in the 15th and early 16th centuries–built one of the great civilizations in the western hemisphere. Besides being accomplished engineers, farmers, architects and traders (and, of course, soldiers), they displayed a highly developed artistic sense. Just how highly developed can be seen in an exhaustive, starkly beautiful exhibition that opened last week at New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

“The Aztec Empire” gathers more than 430 works of sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, religious artifacts and ceremonial objects, some representing recent archaeological finds and many never before seen outside of Mexico. Curated by Felipe Solís, director of Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, it is the most comprehensive survey of Aztec art and culture ever assembled, even more so than the huge show mounted two years ago by the Royal Academy in London, which was co-curated by Solís and inspired this one. The exhibition will run through Feb. 13, 2005, and in March will move on to the Guggenheim’s branch in Bilbao, Spain.

The Aztecs’ harsh nature pervades the show, for which the Guggenheim has swathed the walls of its famous spiral ramp in black felt as a somber background. Early on, one encounters the splendid and somewhat hair-raising clay sculpture known as the Eagle Warrior, circa 1440-69, staring down from a shelf 6 ft. off the floor, as if on a ledge to surprise his enemies. Not far behind him looms the grisly god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, circa 1480, his rib cage exposed and his liver hanging out. The pair encapsulates some of the dualities that created a dynamic tension throughout the Aztec worldview: war and death, light and darkness, power and decay.

As if those two were not unsettling enough, later there is the figure of the fertility god Xipe Totec, circa 1500. Known to the Aztecs as “our flayed lord,” he wears a pebbly garment that represents flayed human skin with pustules of fat clinging to it. The idea behind this image was actually positive. Priests who personified Xipe Totec in fertility rituals wore the skins of sacrificial victims for several days. Then, as the skins dried and came apart, the priests’ healthy bodies emerged, symbolizing the fundamental Aztec notion of life growing out of death. But still.

Contemporary museumgoers can scarcely conceive of the intensity of the Aztecs’ interactions with their surroundings. To them, every creature and element of their world teemed with sometimes frightening, sometimes reassuring divine energy and often embodied the gods themselves. Nowhere does this register more vividly than in their renderings of animals–closely observed, skillfully crafted and with a sort of electric spiritual aura. The stone sculpture of the underworld god Xolotl, circa 1500, portrays him in the form of a huge dog’s head. The piece is as big an an ottoman and ought to be blocky, inert. Instead, with its wild eyes and massive bared fangs, it seems barely leashed, about to lunge with fierce power.

Curator Solís’ vision of the Aztec Empire is widely inclusive, as was the empire itself. The Aztecs were curious about the cultures that had preceded them, like the Olmec, Toltec and Teotihuacán, and they conducted archeological digs among the ruins of those civilizations to retrieve prized art and artifacts, which then influenced their own work. As their empire expanded, they also eagerly appropriated the artistic styles and techniques of neighboring cities and provinces. The exhibition offers many striking pieces as examples of that cultural scavenging, such as an intricate Olmec warrior’s cuirass of oyster shell and mother of pearl, circa 900-1200, and a startlingly vital Teotihuacán funerary mask, circa 450, with its bright inlay of turquoise and piercing obsidian eyes.

In the 1520s, the Aztec Empire abruptly succumbed to Cortés’ conquistadors and the smallpox and typhus they carried with them. The triumphant Spaniards smashed and buried a great deal of Aztec art, melted down the jewelry for its gold and imposed a militant Catholicism on the Aztecs’ myths and rituals. But even in the sanctioned new style of religious art, the Aztecs made sure that their traditional iconography showed through the overlay of Christian symbols. A case in point: an exquisite chalice lid, circa 1540, one of the few surviving examples of the Aztecs’ refined handiwork with feathers. The design refers to holy water, yet the spurt rising from the head’s open jaws is not only the blood of Christ but also unmistakably evokes the primordial sea of Aztec creation myths.

Obdurate people, the Aztecs, and their art is obdurate too. Even the most shapely and decorative works have a rooted, almost defiant density about them. As art historian Beatriz de la Fuente writes in one of the catalog essays, their “confidence is absolute … an expression of power, of the certainty that this people will be defined forever as who they are now.” And not just the people. The Aztecs never doubted their aesthetic grasp of an entire cosmos, coherent if terrifying, and in this exhibition we never do either. •

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