Category: Indigenous

Jean Charlot and the Aztecs

One of the books I’m currently reading is artist Jean Charlot’s, The Mexican Mural Renaissance. Written in 1963, the book is a recollection of the French painter’s active participation in the Mexican Mural movement circa 1920-1925. Charlot befriended artists Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco and others, at a time when their very first murals were being produced. Charlot himself created fresco murals in Mexico City’s National Preparatory School and the Ministry of Public Education. As he put it, having “assisted at the birth of a national style is a rare event, as well worth recording as the birth of a volcano.” In a remarkable passage from his book, Charlot compares Aztec art to Europe’s early 20th century avant-garde, and finds the latter somewhat lacking:

“Early in this century, when the Parisian vanguard, having hacked its way through uncharted stylistic jungles, proudly returned with its strange trophies, the displayed grotesquerie looked familiar and somewhat tame from an Amerindian vantage point. Just having known calli, the Aztec hieroglyph that signifies “house” - a cube of space contained in a cube of adobe - watered down the angular landscapes of Braque and Derain into little more than a mild departure from impressionism. The flat colors of the codices, with raw chromas paired in refined discord, could pass as the goal toward which Matisse of Music and Dance took his first hesitant steps.

The anatomies that Leger put together with ruler and compass were doubtless veering away from Bouguereau, but still had far to go on their semi mechanical legs to equal the frightfully abstract countenance of a Tlaloc or Tzontemoc. Idols combined the moroseness of a 1916 Derain with the mathematical innuendos of Juan Gris. A few were spared in the comparison: Picasso’s evisceration of objects, for example, matched the fierceness of an Aztec ritual knifing.”

What Charlot saw so clearly in the early 1920’s, that Mexico’s ancient indigenous art can be a starting point for a thoroughly modern aesthetic, is still a valid perspective. I addressed this in an earlier post of mine, Aztec Art: Roots of Modernism.

Aztec Art - Roots of Modernism

Aztecs Invade New York!

I’ve been studying Aztec art for decades. Many artists active in or familiar with the Chicano arts movement of America’s Southwestern states have appreciated the blunt figurative style and bold colors of the Aztecs. As African art influenced European artists to establish cubism, so too has Aztec art given inspiration to Chicano painters and print makers from the late 60’s to the present. Currently artists and art enthusiasts around the world are discovering the staggering grandeur created by the indigenous of Mexico over 500 years ago. In 2002, the Royal Academy of Arts in Great Britain presented Aztecs, an exhibition of art and artifacts visited by over 465,000 people, making it one of the most popular exhibits in the Academy’s history.

Now the Guggenheim Museum in New York Ciy presents, The Aztec Empire, a major exhibition running until February 13th, 2005. With over 435 works in stone, ceramic and precious metals from private and public collections, the show is an essential look at the art and culture of the Aztecs. Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens felt it important “to visit past cultures in which modern art has its roots in order to examine the context from which today’s art has emerged.” Beautifully stated… and a remark not to be overlooked. Working artists everywhere should study and embrace the overwhelming aesthetic accomplishments of Mexico’s original inhabitants. The Guggenheim maintains a terrific website for The Aztec Empire exhibition.