A Mystique of Blood and Beauty http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/09/arts/design/09COTT.html
April 9, 2004
ART REVIEW | 'COURTLY ART OF THE ANCIENT MAYA'
A Mystique of Blood and Beauty
By HOLLAND COTTER
WASHINGTON — Textbook history? I believe barely a word of it. It has as much credibility as a Hollywood movie. Like the movies, it's all about formulas: good guys, bad guys; win, lose. But, as the news of the day keeps reminding us, every win is a setup for a loss; angels and devils change sides all the time.
Consider the Maya, who flourished in Mexico and other parts of Central America. Their civilization, in what we call its Classical phase, was one of the most advanced in the ancient world. And it had a strong, high run for the better part of a millennium before hitting some kind of wall in the ninth century A.D. Was it famine? War? Exhaustion? We don't know. But in a flash, a world was over.
It was not, however, entirely lost. When 18th-century travelers stumbled on the remains of Maya cities, they filed glowing reports on the vanished inhabitants.
The Maya, they decided, were peaceable elitists with the minds of accountants and the souls of cosmologists, fixated on dates and stars. They created an urbane figurative art and a complex, if undecipherable, written language, one with a suave graphic pizazz when carved in stone, a little like today's bubble-style street graffiti. With their handsome faces, festive attire and hand-painted dinnerware, they were the sort of neighbors you would want to have.
Then more art came to light; we started to understand their writing; and the grim truth emerged. The Maya were neighbors from hell, incessantly at war, often, self-defeatingly, with each other. Much of their chic couture turned out to be shock-and-awe battle gear. Addicted to power, armed conflict and human sacrifice, they subjected enemy captives to unspeakable torments and practiced ritual self-mutilation. They had a thing for blood. They couldn't get enough of it.
But is this tabloid-style revision of Maya history any more accurate than the old romantic one? That's one question inspired by "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya," a regal and engrossing exhibition at the National Gallery of Art here. And there is a second question: Is the power of beauty in art necessarily a power for good? To both queries the show gives the only plausible reply: yes; no; maybe; sometimes.
Maya art was certainly beautiful. You see this the minute you enter the first gallery of this exhibition, where the stucco portrait head of the seventh-century ruler named Pakal is on display. It's gorgeous; he is an exotic knockout. With his shapely lips and grave eyes he brings Classical Greek sculpture to mind, while his elongated skull and prominent, Picassoid nose conform to a Maya type of youthful perfection.
To the Maya, such beauty was literally divine: they associated it with the maize god, the deity whose yearly death and resurrection produced a life-sustaining harvest. So it is little wonder that variations on this physical ideal recur everywhere, carved in stone, painted on plates, molded on ceramic incense burners and incorporated into the aristocratic likenesses that dominate this art.
We see it, again in the first gallery, on a superb limestone relief of a royal audience, in which a ruler seated on an elevated platform throne looks intently down at another man who balletically genuflects, like a Van Dyck courtier. In almost any culture, these two figures would be models of aristocratic grace, but they are not alone in this scene. Huddled beneath the throne, which closes down on them like a lid, are three bound prisoners, one stoical or stunned, another weeping, a third staring upward, wild-eyed, in panicked suspense, as if hearing his fate being sealed.
He had every reason to panic, to judge by images in a later section of the show titled "The Court at War." Some are scenes of degradation, with captives stripped naked, trussed like animals, crushed underfoot. Others are records of ritualized mortal cruelty. In a mural from the site of Bonampak, seen here in a modern copy, prisoners have their nails torn out or their fingers sliced off; others plead for mercy; still others await further mutilation and death.
Bloodletting seems to have been a religious and political imperative for the Maya, and it was often self-inflicted. In a limestone relief from the city of Yaxchilan, a queen named Lady Xok is shown pulling a thorn-studded rope through her tongue as her husband impassively watches. Despite its chilling subject, the sculpture is formally sublime, with a kind of monumental, sado-masochistic delicacy familiar from Italian Renaissance paintings of crucifixions and martyrdoms.
The queen's left hand, with its neat nails and raised pinky, caresses the barbed rope as if it were the stem of a flower. And an entire history of long vanished Maya textiles is preserved in fantastic carved and incised detail. The queen's robes and her husband's body-fitting armor incorporate layer upon layer of patterned weaving and intricate embroidery, ornamented with tassels, fringes and hand-stitched borders. Once you zero in on all of this, it's hard to see anything else. The thorned rope, the basket of blood-spattered paper at the queen's feet disappear into the larger, abstract pattern.
This piece, and several others here, were included in an influential earlier exhibition, "The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art," organized by the Kimbell Art Museum in Houston in 1986. Mary Ellen Miller, who teaches at Yale, was a curator for that show. And she, along with Kathleen Berrin, a curator at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, is responsible for this exhibition at the National Gallery.
While the two exhibitions have much in common, they are by no means carbon copies. "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya," with its excellent catalog, not only includes recently found objects, but also reflects information gained from the continuing study of Maya writing over the last 18 years. It also focuses on aspects of the culture little examined before, among them the role of women, meaning, in the strictly hierarchical Maya society, women of the ruling class.
Although generally subordinate to men, certain women had signficant influence. Lady Xok obviously did: in another frieze from Yaxchila she receives hallucinatory visions that will affect her husband's success in battle. And even less prominent women had active lives, as indicated by vivid little ceramic sculptures from the cemetery island of Jaina. In one, a lady sits, rather loftily, at a loom; in another, a woman prepares tortillas. If the idea was to have the rich and famous pass as just plains folks, the tortilla maker, wearing a major turban and gems the size of guavas, spectacularly fails the test.
Possibly the artist was in on the joke. The Maya had a wicked eye for caricature, and the high and mighty were fair game. This is particularly evident in the fleet, cartoon-strip paintings that adorn the surface of cylindrical cups. An epicene potentate on one cup is straight from Aubrey Beardsley. And a brilliant painting on another cup, of the doddering god of the underworld making moves on a nude young woman who may or may not be his daughter, is like the medieval European theme of "Death and the Maiden" as conceived by R. Crumb.
The Maya exalted their artists, and this is the work of a star, at once funny, sophisticated, and deeply creepy, with a high-polish decadence familiar from our own contemporary art. Possibly it is this quality, rather than the classical ideal represented by Pakal's portrait, that will prove to be our 21st-century Maya connection. Or maybe the link will lie in the cult of violence that the Maya recorded in stone and paint and we recycle endlessly on film.
Will historians of the distant future locate our reality in our basest fictions and obsessions, and will they be right or wrong to do so? Do the Maya depictions of blood-letting exaggerate an aberrant streak in an otherwise humane culture, or are they accurate indicators of a society that spent its best energies on battling its way to a height of power only to bleed itself to death?
Maybe the present is never in a position to make final judgment calls on the past. We can no more know its realities than we can know the thoughts behind Pakal's angelic face. But if we find ourselves responding to the Maya art here with an unresolvable mix of captivation and repulsion, we're probably somewhere in the vicinity of historical truth.
An art review in Weekend on Friday about "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya" at the National Gallery in Washington misstated the location of the Kimbell Museum, where an influential exhibition of Maya art was presented in 1986. It is in Fort Worth, not in Houston.