Discovering New Old Culture: Olmec Art Reveals Little-Known Ancient Society

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

Discovering New Old Culture: Olmec Art Reveals Little-Known Ancient Society


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Entering the National Gallery of Art's exhibition "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico," opening today in the East Building, is like visiting a cathedral or looking at a perfectly painted work of art.

A sense of awe and mystery envelopes this exhibit, due at least in part to the sheer size of the ancient giant heads excavated at San Lorenzo and La Venta. One of the former, "San Lorenzo Monument 61 - Colossal Head 8," the first sculpture to greet the exhibit visitor, dates from around 1200 to 900 B.C. It weighs about 10 tons and stands about 7 feet high, 5 1/2 feet wide and more than 5 feet deep.

But there is more to the show than the effect of size: It is the sculptures' expression of mana, the supernatural forces and magical powers that directed Olmec life, that is crucial here. The Olmec cosmos was alive with spiritual forces that animated everything that moves and grows and controlled as well the wind, rain, fire and thunder. To represent these powers, the artists who made these 122 figures combined such features as the fanged mouth of the jaguar, the feathers and beak of the harpy eagle, the powerful jaws of crocodilian reptiles, and the razor-sharp teeth of sharks - for a strange, menacing menagerie of fantastic hybrids.

So it seems as though the spirits are walking here, helped along by the exhibit designers' dramatically spare, low-lit, spotlighted display. All objects are illuminated carefully, as if the sun were breaking through an ancient jungle. And each gallery is painted an earth color - gray, jade green, rust brown - to evoke the tombs from which the objects were dug.

The gallery's design team has skillfully placed objects to lead visitors from one gallery to the next. Each gallery focuses on one major monument, or a big iconic figure. For example, the unusually realistic and large jade "Human Mask With Incised Design" in Gallery 4, set high in a four-sided glass case the viewer can circle, leads the viewer directly to the next gallery and the exhibit's second enormous San Lorenzo head, the basalt "San Lorenzo Monument 4 - Colossal Head."

* * *

The National Gallery touts its exhibit as "the first comprehensive overview" of Olmec culture. Yet this is not the only current show. In fact, we could call 1996 the Year of the Olmec: A complementary exhibit, "The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership," was showcased at the Princeton Museum of Art in December and traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston this spring.

Why all this interest in a Mesoamerican culture not so intensively, and extensively, explored as the later, more advanced and more complex Mayas and Aztecs?

For one, it's long been difficult even to identify the Olmecs - who flourished between 1200 and 300 B.C. - as a distinct people. The studies of Olmec culture are still young, and much archaeological material remains to be excavated. The two most complex Olmec sites yet dug, San Lorenzo and La Venta (circa 900 to 300 B.C.), the subjects of the show's first two galleries, are located in Mexico's coastal lowlands, once covered by dense jungles. The names of these peoples are lost, but because the region was called "Olman" for its rubber trees, they were called "Olmec."

Olmec studies are quite recent and began, as scholar and exhibit organizing committee member Elizabeth P. Benson says, "with descriptions of the strange art style." Scholars are just beginning to scratch the surface of the earliest complex society in the Americas and the one that established the first artistic tradition in Mesoamerica.

These people, according to leading Olmec scholar Richard A. Diehl, who has led field research in Mexico and Guatemala, were the first in Mesoamerica to deliberately bury ceremonial offerings. No records come down, as the Olmecs had no writing.

Certain elements of the Olmec art style are, indeed, strange. Both stone and clay figurative sculptures here suggest the people who made them were usually small in height, with a tendency toward obesity, had slanting eyes, flat noses, and mouths with thick lips and turned-down corners, all of which makes them look like newborn babies. …

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