Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas
Through May 20 at the Walters Art Museum
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The Walters Art Museum claims to present “a comprehensive history of art from the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century.” And when it comes to many parts of the world, it does. But until recently, the collection lacked art from our own hemisphere. Then, in 2008, in the depths of the recession, the museum received a phone call. “What a bright spot in a gloomy time,” Director Gary Vikan recalls. It was thus the museum learned it would receive a rich collection of pre-Columbian art belonging to collector John Bourne, totaling more than 300 pieces.
Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection is a sampling of 135 of those pieces, from civilizations of Mexico and Central and South America, including the Teotihuacan, Olmec, Maya, Andean, Aztec, and Mixtec. The exhibition spans 4,000 years and is composed of a staggering variety of objects—funeral vessels, jewelry, earthenware figurines, masks, and more—and represents an equally varied range of styles. It also comes with a swashbuckling back-story: John Bourne, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, began collecting art of the ancient Americas after traveling to the jungles of southern Mexico in 1945 when he was still a teenager. He befriended members of the Lacandon, the last indigenous Maya with little previous contact with the modern world. He conducted a bit of informal ethnography, and his recordings of their music play in the exhibition gallery. (Bourne tells the tale of his adventure and shares his fascinating photographs in the accompanying catalog.)
So began a lifetime of avid collecting, decades before most people considered such artifacts art. Bourne’s collection has never been the subject of a major exhibition before; following the show, the Walters plans to build a permanent new collection of art from the Western hemisphere around it. (Along with the artwork, Bourne has given the museum a bequest of $4 million for the research, conservation, display, and teaching of the arts of the ancient Americas, adding to a $3.25 million bequest from another donor with a similar focus.) “This is a really excellent seed collection,” says Dorie Reents-Budet, consulting curator for the exhibition and curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “It’s a very good foundation.”
The exhibition is divided into Mesoamerica, Central America, and Andean South America. Expansive, often bilingual wall text and labels guide the visitor along and dispense tantalizing factoids. (Near a collection of delightful dog effigies, for example, one learns that the ancestors of the hairless Chihuahua were nearly driven to extinction in the 16th century by the Spanish, who pickled and ate them on their transoceanic voyages.) And the pieces themselves, which represent an astonishing array of styles, are likely to dispel any prejudices you may have about pre-Columbian art.
The exhibition opens with Mesoamerica, defined as modern-day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. One finds jewelry—including exquisite pieces fashioned without metal tools, from notoriously hard jadeite—vessels, and other functional objects, but here, and throughout the exhibition, the number of figural pieces is striking. “[Bourne] is just drawn to the human form,” says Reents-Budet, who points out that the collection lacks objects like textiles, which don’t tend to depict people.
Some of the figures in this section, such as a Mayan effigy of an elderly warrior from A.D. 550-850, are highly detailed and realistic. This palm-sized earthenware figurine depicts a man holding a shield and wearing armor, bearded chin jutting out defiantly. (A rope around his neck—indicating he may be a captured warrior—looks uncannily like an Elizabethan ruff.) Others, like a large earthenware sculpture of a conjoined man and woman from Mexico circa 100 B.C.- A.D. 300, have the elongated limbs and balloon-like thighs of a Matisse painting. The expressive faces, which gaze at one another, seem to indicate a couple in love. But the label notes that “the representation of personal affection is rare in Mesoamerican art.” Instead, it suggests, the sculpture may depict a healing ceremony between shaman and patient. Alongside this piece, and many others throughout the exhibition, lies an information panel that takes the visitors behind the scenes. Titled “From the Conservation Lab,” this particular example explains that the sculpture was reconstructed from more than 50 fragments before coming to the Walters; x-radiography imagery reveals that the figures may not even have been joined originally.
The Central America gallery, covering the present-day countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, has the fewest pieces. Reents-Budet says this is in part because the region has historically been overshadowed by collectors seeking more glamorous civilizations, such as the Aztecs and the Mayans. And the wall text points out that most of the indigenous population in this area was wiped out by European diseases, leaving few details about their lives behind. Still, the pieces here are eye-catching. Christopher Columbus named Costa Rica thus for a reason: The indigenous people he met draped themselves in gold. A case displays several examples, including a streamlined frog effigy pendant (A.D. 700-1520) the size of a lemon. An Ecuadorian snuff tray (300 B.C.-A.D. 600), intended for the powdered psychoactive plants snorted by a shaman, is, however, guarded by a more meticulously formed creature, dragon-like with bared claws.
In the Andean South American gallery one finds royal objects, like gold and silver drinking vessels for imbibing chicha (maize beer), among homier artifacts. A lobster effigy vessel from Peru (200 B.C.-A.D. 500) looks for all the world like a character from a Disney movie. Painted in brown-striped gray, it raises its claws and bares charming, cartoonish teeth. Not far away, in contrast, sits a precision-sculpted ocarina depicting a solar deity in elaborate striped finery. (Musical instruments and other performance-related pieces are sprinkled throughout the exhibition.)
In sum, the exhibition reminds you with a jolt that these people who lived so long ago were not so very different from us. “There are still people who see this stuff and say, ‘Oh my gosh! I had no idea,’” Reents-Budet says, gesturing at the cases around her. This writer humbly counts herself among them.