Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

MONTEZUMA'S REVENGE; Bodily Fluids Are a Common Theme of the British Museum's Aztec Artefacts and Anish Kapoor's Misfiring Japes at the Royal Academy

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

MONTEZUMA'S REVENGE; Bodily Fluids Are a Common Theme of the British Museum's Aztec Artefacts and Anish Kapoor's Misfiring Japes at the Royal Academy

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Sewell exhibitionS of the week

It is far too soon for London to have another Aztec exhibition. Only seven years have passed since the Royal Academy mounted one that was not only visually exciting but effectively evoked the sickening beastliness of that society - yet now the British Museum follows it with a much smaller gathering of artefacts presented with dry, insistent scholarship. this, in concentrating on Montezuma, the last tyrant of the Aztec empire (a territory of much the same extent as England and Wales), and its transition to spanish imperial rule, attempts to be different but the significant exhibits are much the same in style, character and fetish, and those made after Montezuma's death are no better than things found today in the upper reaches of Portobello Road. the problem of who killed Montezuma appears still to be unresolved.

''Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma,'' wrote thomas Babington Macaulay in 1840, using the name by which the emperor had been known since the spanish conquest early in the 16th century, never amended by his descendants, one of whom was Viceroy of Mexico two centuries later and the last of whom died in 1836. For five full centuries every schoolboy has known how to spell Montezuma, and for two of them the battle hymn of American Marines has begun with "From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of tripoli", but now the British Museum has discovered that for all these years it should have been Moctezuma, substituting c for n. the old spelling is justified by 500 years of usage; to change it now is sheer pedantry of the kind we hear from those who insist that though English is enriched by the words quixotic, quixotry and even quixotise, Don Quixote himself is Donkey Hotay.

Such pedantry is deadening and so too is the presentation. this is an exhibition of miscellaneous objects retrieved from the Aztec metropolis that lies below pullulating Mexico City, where the water table is sinking by as much as 30 centimetres a year, toppling far younger buildings - does this make archaeological excavation easier, i wonder, or more difficult? No doubt wondrous - or so the experts would have us believe - these retrievals are nevertheless neutered, stripped back to the stone, deprived of the gesso overlay on which the Aztecs painted in strong earth pigments. I would, i think, learn more from these grey archaeological objects if they were paired with modern painted casts that gave some impression of how the Aztecs saw them. As it is, applying the same aesthetic judgments as i do to the reliefs of Donatello and Ghiberti, i find them pretty feeble stuff, and the only thing that astonishes me is that they are as intricate and refined as they are, for the Aztecs, having no hard metals, worked on hard stone with tools of harder stone. But dogged perseverance, however admirable, does not in itself make a work of art.

I perceive no art in the showy barbarism of the Aztec world. if its craftsmen were happy to labour over grinning masks of utmost hideousness, even to embellish a human skull with a mosaic of turquoise and other trumpery materials, so be it, but we should not be required to see them as works of art; they are cultural objects, fetishes with which to terrify and induce irrational reverence in the superstitious society of their day but to be seen by us as the gruesome and grotesque curiosities of a barbarous regime. And there lies the flaw in this little exhibition (it is no blockbuster but a feeble tailwagger in the BM's sequence of snapshot glimpses into cultures and societies far away in time and place) - it is so colourless that one longs to hear the whimpering of infants as they wait to be blood sacrifices and the screams of adult victims as their ribcages are sawn apart with hardstone blades and their palpitating hearts ripped out. such a soundtrack would, of course, be far too corny for the aesthetes of Great Russell street, but the hint of sound they have, of the wind at 8,000 feet, of birdsong, even of thunder, does nothing to reinforce the ugly truths of the Aztecs' credulous theocracy. …

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