Page 14


BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Visions of Mexico BY NICK DAUSTER San Antonio EXICO: THE SPLENDORS of Thirty Centuries,” currently showing at the San Antonio Museum of Art, is a breathtaking display of both art and politics. The art itself is astonishing, both in the the brilliance of individual pieces and in the scope of the exhibition as a whole. Any exhibition this ambitious will be hard-pressed to satisfy purists, but this one manages to strike a satisfying medium between serving as an introduction for the novice and delighting those already familiar with Mexican art. There are pieces from private collections, European museums, and recent excavations which even the most experienced traveler is unlikely to have seen. In this context, even the best-known of these works, from the huge stone head carved by the Olmecs, Mexico’s oldest tradition, to the generous samplings of the 20th-century muralists Diego Rivera, David Siquieros and Clemente Orozco, acquire new meaning. “Splendors” is not without its difficulties. Because of space constraints, the pre-Hispanic period comes across as a ,largely unrelated set of civilizations, each of them rising toward greatness and then falling apart in near-perfect isolation. In truth, preColuMbian cultures shared a considerable amount of trade, ideas, culture and religion, if not language, and a superstitious respect for the achievements of the previous civilizations. The exhibit has also come under fire for neglecting post-modern Mexican art. Surely some room could have been made for living Mexican artists such as Juan Soriano and Jose Luis Cuevas. Two earlier modern traditions that deserved at least some space were also left out. The first is the charming, “primitive” ex voto paintings, cornmissioned in gratitude to a saint who had intervened on behalf of a believer. The second is the school of graphic artists who filled 19thand 20th-century Mexican streets with protest broadsheets, satirizing the government and helping provoke the Revolution. Their vicious and provocative wit united art and popular politics to a degree beyond the aspirations of the more-famous muralists. On the whole, however, the organizers of “Splendors” have done a remarkable job, despite limits on what they could bring to the United States. Much of the extraordinary art of the pre Austin writerNickDauster studied anthropology in Mexico for three years. COURTESY SAN ANTONIO MUSEUM OF ART Flanged ceramic cylinder from Palenque, Mexico , circa 690 AD. Hispanic era that which survived the depredations of the conquerers and the centuries of neglect which followed is in the form of buildings or pieces so monumental that they cannot be moved. Much of the largely religious art of the Colonial period is embedded in the facades and altars of churches and on the walls of monasteries. The exhibit can only suggest the glory of these periods, through media which attempt to convey the spirit of sites too monumental for inclusion: photographs, the architect’s model for the main altar in Puebla’s majestic cathedral, and rubbings from the Palenque sarcophagus. The objects from Palenque are the most impressive from the preshispanic section. Occupied by the Maya from 650-800 A.D., and only rescued from the jungle by archeologists beginning in the 1940s \(a process which is not yet comrate in all of preconquest Mexico. On exhibit is a stucco head, found under the sarcophagus lid, which is now thought to represent Pacal himself, looking out across the centuries with an implacable stare. The most striking objects from Palenque are a pair of ceramic cyl inders with expressive faces, both comic and terrifying, surrounded by a wealth of opulent detail, all of which contrasts vividly with Pacal’s regal authority. These cylinders still have tantalizing traces of the paint which . once covered them. Whether on the sarcophagus, on Pacal’s regalia, or on these vivid ceramic cylinders, Palenque’s artisans displayed a fluidity of line and construction unparalleled in the pre-Hispanic era. The more famous Aitecs are represented by work which seems stiffer in comparison. Many of the Aztec objects included in the exhibition come from the excavation of the Great Temple, which was only located precisely in 1978. Since the Spaniards built directly on top of the city of the Aztecs they conquered, much of the most important archeological territory is covered by the National Cathedral and governmental buildings which date back to the 16th century. Only by an accident of history was the area of the Great Temple accessible to archeologists: the sons of the Conquistador whose house stood over the Temple rebelled against the Crown, which led to their execution and the razing of the area, and nothing was rebuilt there for centuries. Some of the archeological riches from this excavation are displayed in the exhibit, including a spectacular large shell sculpture. The Aztec portion of the exhibit also includes a rare and well-preserved wooden drum of the period its precise carvings still clearly visible, and a charming gold bell lent by the Hermitage in the shape of an Eagle warrior. The latter is yet another reminder of how much of Mexico’s patrimony was lost or melted down by the Spaniards: Albrecht Durer, who saw the work of the Aztec goldsmiths in Europe before it was melted, wrote that he found it among the most beautiful art work he had ever seen. URING THE 20TH century, Mexico’s spectacular pre-conquest civilizations were honored bas part of the national ideology. Colonial art has been neglected. “Splendors” rights that wrong. Colonial painting imitated the European style and is often more remarkable for its historical interest than for its imagination. For example, the exhibition includes the famous portrait of the remarkable 17th-century nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose poetry and scholarship have inspired generations of Mexicans, particularly women. The exhibit also includes several “caste paintings” the depictions of the elaborate caste system in which gradations of racial mixture were elaborated. Certain paintings also provide the exhibit with unintentional hu THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17