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: Pre-Columbian Examples of Ceramic Sculpture


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In an exhibition of pre-Columbian art to be opened on December 9, 1947, the Institute will present to its members and the public a group of recent acquisitions in the pre-Columbian field. Including sculpture, pottery, and ceramic sculpture, the group rounds out admirably the existing collection and adds enormously to its importance.In themselves, the new additions are of special interest and value in view of the fact that they emphasize the cultural contributions of two areas hitherto scantily represented in the museum: Mexico and Central America. Gaps in sculpture have been filled in with important examples of the Zapotec, Toltec, Aztec, Totonac, and New Empire cultures. The evolution of pottery vessels has been clarified by the addition of pieces of the Olmec, Zapotec, Tarascan, Aztec, Colima, Cholula, Old Empire, and Costa Rican peoples. But it is in the field of ceramic sculpture that the new acquisitions are especially rich and varied. Since this branch of ceramics is one in which pre-Columbian peoples generally excelled, this issue of the Bulletin has been devoted to examples of ceramic sculpture in the current exhibition. It will be seen at once that these figures possess imagination and originality, and that they are modelled with an energy, suavity, vivacity, or extravagance that is unparalleled in other primitive examples of the art. Whatever their special character, they invariably display the harmonious spontaneity to be found only in potteries fashioned by hand. As a result of this intimacy between the potter and his work, each piece seems imbued with the very spirit of the people who produced it. Fortunately for the quality of their ceramic art, the pre-Columbians had no knowledge of the potter's wheel.The examples by which they are now so splendidly represented in the Institute's collection emanate from various centers and periods. The former are definitely known but the latter, in view of the shifting state of pre-Columbian chronology, may be considered tentative in some cases. One culture about which little doubt remains, thanks to Dr. Morley, is that of the Maya during the Old and New Empires, and it is from the period of the Old Empire, fourth to tenth centuries, that some of the finest pre-Columbian ceramic sculpture has come. Among its masterpieces in this field are the painted terra cotta whistles which originated on the Island of Jaina off the coast of Campeche. A fine example of this type is the standing male figure shown on page 163. The dignity of this piece, with its noble head and proud bearing, is marvellously expressed in the nervous grace of the modelling. As was usual with figurines of this type, the head and face have been portrayed with great care while the body is given more summary treatment. It is probable that this piece dates from the late seventh century. Jaina, which was a peripheral settlement of the Old Empire, raised its first stela in 652.Three other figurines from this source give further proof of the excellence of terra cotta modeling of the Old Empire. One, a male figure, is of unusual interest because it wears about its waist one of the ceremonial yokes which seem to have originated in Mexico. A magnificent example of such a yoke is to be found in the Institute's collection. It has been attributed to the Totonac culture, but recent researches indicate that it may belong to the early Olmec, first to sixth centuries.Also recently attributed to the Olmec culture are the enchanting smiling masks of Mixtequilla, which were formerly thought to be of Totonac origin. A characteristic example of this unique type of pre-Columbian ceramic sculpture is shown on this page. It is not, unfortunately, complete, but the essential part remains—the lovely, round-cheeked face with its expressive eyes and its charmingly infectious smile. Masks of this type represent the only expression of pure happiness to be found in pre-Columbian America and one of the most seductive expressions of it to be found anywhere.A quite different type of face to be seen in the Zapotecan funerary urn recovered from a tomb in the vicinity of Monte Alban. It is a fantastic, almost obscene, face, which is odd in view of the fact that it probably represents Cojica, the beneficent god of Rain. Urns of this type, intended purely for funerary use, were widely distributed in Zapotecan tombs. They are more exuberantly baroque than almost any other type of pre-Columbian sculpture. Two other urns, one from Monte Alban and the other of Aztec origin, present interesting contrasts to this example.An entirely different type of ceramic sculpture is that which comes from Colima and Nayarit in Western Mexico. That from Colima is a vigorous and energetic art with a quality of irony and half-hidden terror that sets it quite apart from the ceramic art of other pre-Columbian peoples. It is, perhaps, the most perfectly realized ceramic sculpture in ancient Mexico. Among the pieces most commonly found are figures in which the element of true portraiture is present, hunters, warriors, mothers, hunchbacks, tambourine players, jugglers, and other groups of popular appeal. The warrior reproduced here is a characteristic example of spirited modelling which reveals, despite the jaunty attitude, an inner apprehension often to be sensed in these absurd but strangely moving figures. The eyes, framed by a peaked cap and a breastplate of heavy woven reeds, look out at the spectator in quiet desperation.Another important example in the group of four Colima is a large figure of a burnished red pottery dog. This is the animal so frequently placed in tombs for the purpose of conducting the spirit of the dead to the safe haven of the other world.The ceramic sculpture of Nayarit is closely related in style and time—possibly the sixth or seventh century—to that of Colima. Like the figures of Colima, those of Nayarit, so far as is known, produced the house and temple groups so important in deciphering their way of living. The painted house with its family group engaged in various tasks is one of the most important that has yet come to light. The house is decorated with geometric designs in typical Nayarit polychrome style, and although the painting has faded the design may still be deciphered.An example in which this style of painting is seen at its most brilliant is the seated figure of a ball player on this page. Here, too, may be observed the fresh and naïf spirit of the Nayarit people, and that quality of merriment in them which is enhanced by the primitive character of their modelling. These examples, together with eleven others from Nayarit, illustrate those distinctive traits of style, technique, and decoration which make Nayarit ceramic sculpture one of the most engaging manifestations of the art to be found in the entire history of pre-Columbian art.Referenced Works of Art
  1. House Group painted in polychrome. An important example of ceramic sculpture from Nayarit, Mexico.
  2. Painted terra cotta whistle. Maya, old empire
  3. Smiling mask from Mixtequilla. Olmec culture (?) Mexico
  4. Funerary urn, Zapotec, Monte Alban region, Mexico
  5. Warrior with club and breast plate. Colima, Mexico
  6. Polychrome figure of a ball player. Nayarit, Mexico
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Source: "Pre-Columbian Examples of Ceramic Sculpture," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 36, no. 33 (December, 1947): 162-167.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009