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: Recent Additions to the Institute's Collection of Peruvian Pottery


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute has recently augmented its collection of Peruvian pottery by the acquisition of a number of important examples which will be on display in the pre-Columbian galleries from January 4, 1947. These additions to the collection range in date from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries and document many phases of pre-Columbian history, which for technical purposes ends with Columbus' discovery in 1492, but for more practical purposes ends with Cortez' coming in 1519.The six examples described and illustrated in this issue of the Bulletin will serve as no more than an introduction to the archaeological documentation and aesthetic values to be found in most pre-Columbian art and especially in Peruvian pottery. A further study on the part of the museum visitor of the many other pieces of Peruvian pottery which will be on display will provide a deeper appreciation of the ancient and indigenous art of our hemisphere and, without doubt, provoke more speculation on the distant relationship of all races living around the Pacific Basin. The visitor will surely be struck by the powerful sense of design of the ancient Peruvians.At some date a Mongoloid race crossed the Bering Strait into the Western Hemisphere and brought with it nothing more than a nomadic hunting culture. This race gradually spread over the two continents of the hemisphere and turned to agriculture and animal husbandry. Agricultural kingdoms and higher cultures developed in various areas with favorable climates and resources. These higher cultures in turn influenced each other and gave birth to great civilizations of multiple origins. Although the process began earlier than can be imagined, the first great civilization developed about the time of Christ and continued to develop until the conquest of the Americas by the Christians.Several civilizations flourished simultaneously in Peru, rising and falling at different times and by different conquests. All, however, produced pottery of interest, and none had knowledge of the potter's wheel as known in the Orient and Europe. The earliest of these civilizations connected with our pottery was the Chimu, which flourished from the first to the eighth centuries with a renaissance from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. The Chimu capital was at Chan-Chan, located between the present Trujillo and the sea and noted for its hills and mounds on which stood many temples. The example illustrated here is representative of the best Chimu pottery and dates from the twelfth century. The Chimu potters emphasized form or modelling rather than color or decoration. Most Chimu ware is of a single color supplied by the basic color of the clay used or a painted slip. Any additional decoration takes the form of realistically modelled agricultural or religious symbols. The example shown is eight and a half inches high and, as seen in the cut, has a carefully modelled, flattened oval body with modelled decoration and a double spout handle. The use in this vessel of black only is especially typical of later Chimu pottery.The shape of the pot was determined by its function as a container for water, and similar shapes are common. However, the double spout handle was not common until later Chimu times and was influenced by double spout handles seen on pottery from the Nazca civilization which flourished to the south of the Chimu from the first to the sixth centuries. Without question there was trade between the Chimus and Nazcas. Examination of the decoration of the vessel reveals two foxes modelled in relief against a background of dots, also modelled in relief. In Chimu mythology the fox became a symbol of the moon and in early Chimu art the moon, and the fox, which hunted by moonlight, were often depicted together. In our later example the potter has used the fox as a symbol of the moon. The dots may represent the stars, but more likely have been included as a convenient and decorative pattern. The shiny surface was obtained after one firing by burnishing the piece.To the south of the Chimu civilization was the Nazca, another agricultural kingdom located in the Ica and Pisco valleys. The Nazcas reached the height of their power about the sixth century, by which time they possessed all the inventions of the Chimus, but were in the cruel grip of a much stronger and more superstitious priesthood associated with nature worship. This spirit is clearly evident in their art. In their superb textiles and in their pottery we see time and again the nature motifs connected with their livelihood and religion as well as hardened warriors and the mummified heads of their enemies.The Nazca potter concentrated on color and decoration rather than on form. The form is usually of no interest unless it takes the shape of one of the agricultural motifs so frequently used. Color was all-important to the Nazca artisan. He secured it by using various clays or vegetables dyes. He used one principal technique which involved covering the pot with a white slip and then painting various colors, mixed with a small amount of clay, over the slip and creating imaginative and powerful designs. He next fired the pot and finally, though not always, burnished it to produce a wax-like surface. The four Nazca pots illustrated above were made in this manner.As seen in the cut, one Nazca example has been modelled in the shape of a cactus, sometimes a food plant. Although suggested by the modelling, the true character of the cactus is brought out by the black and white geometric design. The cactus jar served as a container for liquids and has a double spout handle. It stands six inches high. Another variation on the agricultural motif is seen in the decoration of the wide-mouthed bowl illustrated in this Bulletin. The bowl has been covered with white slip and then painted with great restraint. The decoration is no more than a simple border of peppers, a well-known South American food. For variety the peppers alternate in position and between black and red. There was not quite enough for the potter to include the final pepper so in one small border area he filled in with a geometric design. Judged by any standards, this bowl is a masterpiece of stylized design.A typical Nazca pot with an animal decoration can be seen in the liquid container covered with a colorful design of two pumas. The technique is again polychrome over white slip. There is a puma or spotted cat, considered by the Nazcas as a carrier of food, on each side of the jar. The puma with his conventionalized long tongue offers the potter an excellent subject for an abstract design. On the Nazca beaker illustrated here we see the human motif in the form of two warriors holding arrows. The potter has filled the spaces between the figures with arrows and, appropriately enough, filled the border below the main design with arrowheads.The most popularly known of the pre-Columbian civilizations, the Inca, flourished relatively late, from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. It was located in the highlands of Peru around modern Cuzco. Having conquered most of Peru, the Incas set about building unbelievable monuments and continued the production of the arts developed by other Peruvian civilizations. Although sophisticated artisans in many lines, they still did not know the potter's wheel. In their pottery we see practical shapes, often decorated with geometric designs, but less colorful and imaginative than the Nazca.The aryballus illustrated here dates from the fifteenth century. The fact that it shapes resembles the Greek form, and thus the name, is purely coincidental. The shape is very common, and examples varying from six inches to four feet high have been excavated. Our example is comparatively small at thirteen and a half inches high. It was used for carrying or storing water. Many theories on exactly how the aryballus was used have been advanced.However, pottery models of men carrying such vessels have been found and clear up the problem. The two very small loops below the lip were used for trying on a lid. The two larger loops below were used as handles when pouring and as support for a rope when the jar was carried on a man's back. The rope went through two handles, looped over the head-shaped nubbin on the middle of the pot, and was held in front by the carrier. The curving base of the aryballus allowed the carrier to pour water by simply slackening the rope and thus allowing the pot to turn to a pouring position. An almost similar use of such primitive water-containers can be seen in the Cuzco of today, but it is only a faint reminder of the truly important art produced by these first Americans.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Beaker painted in polychrome with a frieze of warriors carrying arrows. Peruvian, Nazca, VI century. Dunwoody Fund
  2. Wide-mouthed bowl with a design of peppers in red and black. Peruvian, Nazca, VI century. Ethel M. Van Derlip Fund
  3. Jar in the form of a cactus with painted design in black and white. Peruvian, Nazca, VI century
  4. Double spout vase with a design of pumas on a white ground. Peruvian, Nazca, VI century. Dunwoody Fund
  5. Double spout of black pottery with a design of foxes. Peruvian, Chimu, XII century. Ethel M. Van Derlip fund
  6. Aryballus with geometric designs on a terracotta ground. Peruvian, Inca, XV century. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "Recent Additions to the Institute's Collection of Peruvian Pottery," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 36, no. 1 (January, 1947): 2-7.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009