The Aztecs in London at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London 2003

By James, N. | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Aztecs in London at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London 2003


James, N., Antiquity


To step amongst much of the material for all of one's studies in a few rooms is--as was said of the .Conquistadors' first entry to the Aztec capital--like a dream. Aztecs, at the Royal Academy of Arts, is an amazing experience for the scholar; and the exhibition has proved so for the layman too. On the Aztecs, its like will not be seen again.

Craftsmanship was an idiom for quality among the Aztecs. More than other prehispanic patrons, their aristocrats seem to have commissioned art as such to express ambitions. Indeed, the arrangement of the 359 exhibits offers to help visitors to assess whether the Aztecs' leading ideas were merely those of their leadership. For the ten principal galleries attempt to present distinct themes: antecedents (small Olmec pieces, Teotihuacano, Toltec, including a chacmool from Tula); the human form and `nature'; `Gods of life' and `of death', and `Priests, religion and the calendar'; `Symbols of status'; the capital's Great Temple, in the biggest gallery; `Treasures and codices'; and, providing an apt test of spirituality and ideology, the Spanish period. Yet, although, indeed, it is probably unfair to accuse the Aztecs of wholly calculated manipulation, the selection and presentation of the exhibits neither allays the sociologist's suspicion nor indicates the political turbulence that probably impelled so much of their hurly-burly lives, `art' and all. Nor, indeed, did the Aztecs themselves distinguish `nature' from the `Gods'. For the anthropology museums contributing, as too for readers of this journal, paucity of social context is a failing; but the Academy has earned the right here to set its own agenda.

The exhibits include many pieces familiar from the great National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and 13 others in Mexico, and from nearly fifty museums, galleries and libraries in a dozen other countries. Thus together here, for instance, are (with references, for the archaeologist's record, to the Table): the ghostly statue of Xochipilli, Flower Lord (1); the Altar of Night Animals and the sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli, Earth Lord (2-3); the ahuitzotl lid from Berlin displayed above the British Museum's fragmentary `Ahuitzotl' casket (4-5); the Tizoc & Ahuitzotl Dedication Stone (6); from the Great Temple, the head of the Moon goddess, the urn of the Lord of the Dead and the horrific terracotta showing him with exposed liver, the `Old God', and one of the terracotta Eagle warriors (7-11); the Feather Shield from Vienna (12); the British Museum's amphisbaena and sacrifical dagger (13-4); and codices, including--in one room--Fejervary-Mayer, Mendoza, the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca--each showing their most famous images--and the Florentine.

Not, by any means, that only well known pieces are assembled. Heart-stopping Christian featherwork panels, borrowed from Tepotzotlan and Auch, remind us of how much `fine art' must have perished at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Some exhibits are on public show for the first time, including the set of five soldiers sculpted in archaic Toltec style, unearthed way back in 1944 (15), and four astoundingly elaborate braziers, found at Tlahuac in 1996 (16).

The exhibits are of medium size or small, by Aztec standards, although the Quetzpalan map measures 6 feet by 5. Other than the outer limits of weight or value, there was evidently no stop to the Academy's reach. The pieces are displayed with due elegance and ample space, and they are well lit. Some are shown better than in their own galleries although, even here, reflections on the perspex case hinder appreciation of the wooden Malinalco drum (Table, 17). In the flesh, or brought out of their usual settings and into fresh juxtapositions, there are various fruitful surprises among pieces usually studied alone, from pictures and notes. Opposite the figure of the Flayed Lord (Figure), the graphic pottery (putative) `container for flayed skin' horrifies the most blase (Table, 18-9). …

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