Unearthing Primitive Treasures Tough and Sometimes Strange and Threatening, Ancient Mexican Art Has Inspired 20th-Century Artists and Designers

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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 19th 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 to primitive art and the potency of the sophisticated Mediterranean tradition.

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 center - 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 considerable degree. Fear and authority are epitomized by it, not suffering.

In contrast, it might be pointed out that much European art depicts acts of savagery: Crucifixion, for instance, is a frequent subject. …