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: A Group of Mochica Pottery


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The beginning, gradual growth, and awakening interest in a new collection, however modest it may be, offers one of the most heartening of all rewards to the museum worker. This is especially true if the collection is vital and compelling in itself, if it adds further fragments to the mosaic of universal knowledge concerning the civilizations of the world, and if it pays its way as interpretive material in the educational program of the museum. Such a collection is that of pre-Columbian art which had its inception in a handful of ancient Peruvian potteries and textiles three years ago. During the time that has since elapsed, the Art Institute has added to its permanent collection over two hundred examples of pottery, textiles, metalwork, and sculpture illustrating the artistic development of Mexico, Central and South America.Among the most interesting of these objects, and among the most necessary to an understanding of Peruvian culture before the Spanish conquest, is a group of thirty-two potteries of the Mochica civilization. This is the civilization generally known in North America as the Early Chimu and which Dr. Max Uhle, the pioneer in archaeological investigations in Peru, called the Proto-Chimu. In Peru, however, the style is most widely known as Mochica, from the language of the people and also in allusion to the region near the Moche River where many of the most imposing specimens were found. The Mochica potteries represent the earliest of the post-archaic cultures of ancient Peru. They are notable for the realism with which they reflect the life and customs of the period, and for the superb workmanship that distinguishes the best of them.Before describing some of the examples now to be seen in the Institute's collection, it might be helpful to review briefly the history and chronology of the Andean area in which developed the most noteworthy of the pre-Spanish cultures of South America. It is thought that primitive peoples entered South America from Central America some time during the thousand years preceding the Christian era. They could have followed the river courses into Columbia and thence moved south, or they could have come down the sea coast in boats or along the coast itself. It is the latter course that must have been taken by the peoples whose archaic culture flowered, during the first six centuries of our era, into the distinguished and exciting Mochica and Early Nazca arts. Magnificent cities, whose outlines were broken by vast pyramidal structures, were built in the coastal valleys, and the region inhabited by the Chimu peoples was gradually molded into a vast empire which achieved a high state of material culture. The capital of this northern Peruvian empire was at Chan-Chan, close to the Moche River and near the Spanish city of Trujillo.Contemporaneously with the Mochica civilization flourished that of the Early Nazca in southern Peru. Despite the fact that Early Nazca art emanated from Mochica art, as is evidenced by realistic details of the earliest potteries, it soon developed its own canon in which realism was displaced by a formalized style noted for the brilliance of its color.While the Mochica and Early Nazca civilizations were achieving such height along the coast of Peru, the style known as Tiahuanaco I was making slow headway in the highlands beyond the coast. About the seventh century, through intercourse with the Early Nazcas that may have been warlike or peaceful, Tiahuanaco I received new inspiration that resulted in a vigorous and powerful art which ended by dominating the entire Peruvian area. The highly conventionalized style that developed from the mingling of Tiahuanaco I and Early Nazca is to be seen in some of the potteries, but more especially in the textiles, now in the Institute's collection. This style, known as Tiahuanaco II or Coast Tiahuanaco, is the third of the four great pre-Spanish Peruvian styles. Its domination lasted until about the tenth century, when, for some reason as yet unknown, it collapsed. There followed a period of decadence in which lingered remnants of the Tiahuanaco II style but it was not until the resurgence of the Mochica and Early Nazca cultures, as the Late Chimu and Late Nazca, that artistic activity again became marked in the coastal area. These two empires gradually reasserted themselves, dominating the coast until the Inca conquest in the early fifteenth century.However, in neither technique nor inspiration did their work equal that of Mochica and Early Nazca artists. The ceramic art of the latter was well illustrated in the first group of early Peruvian potteries acquired by the Art Institute, and this has now been reinforced with further characteristic examples painted in polychrome.In comparison with the Early Nazca potteries, the Mochica wares are subdued in color, employing in their repertory only reddish-brown, black, brown, and occasionally orange. Although the Mochica artists combined the techniques of modelling and painting, it is for their modelled jars, particularly those representing human beings, that they are most noted. As will be seen by an examination of the potteries now on display, however, they were superb craftsmen in both form and line. Their intention, judged from the pottery and textiles which have been brought to light from their tombs, was to represent every aspect of their lives. Having no written language, it is possible that they intended to write their history in terms of both cloth and clay. Whatever the purpose, it is fortunate that their customs, dress, and manners appeared to them worthy of perpetuation in these forms. It is from them that the most accurate knowledge of Mochica civilization is derived, and it is by them that the accounts of Spanish Chroniclers in sixteenth-century Peru have been so admirably corroborated.The Mochica potteries in the Institute's collection fall into several groups. The most numerous is the portrait group representing single figures. These may be simple portrait heads, chieftains, warriors, women, or what the Peruvians designate as pathological representations. Perhaps the finest is the portrait head illustrated on the cover of this Bulletin. This noble and dignified head illustrates the genius with which the Mochica artist interpreted his subject. It is a sensitive and eloquent portrayal of an individual whom one feels to have been possessed of the highest virtues.The same feeling for individual characterization is to be seen in the full-length figure of a captive chieftain illustrated on page 27. The figure, clad in a short tunic and snug helmet which fits closely under the chin, stands proudly with his hands bound behind him. The enormous earstuds, the nose piece, and the imposing headdress, suggest that this was a person of great importance. The expression of the face suggests the same. It is strong and arrogant even in the defeat which the artist has so subtly portrayed. Here is a man who has been humiliated, but who will be stubbornly his own man until the end. The powerfully realistic character of the head here gains emphasis through the sketchy treatment of the lower body, pointing up the fact that the Mochica artists were skillful and knowing in attaining their ends.This example of portraiture bears some traces of painting. Two others, of warriors, display the combined modelled and painted technique so frequently used by Mochica potters. In both instances the painting is employed to depict details of costume and the design of headdresses. Another example, this time depicting an old woman, is shown on this page. This stirrup-handle jar displays one of the few manners in which women were represented in Mochica potteries. According to the Spanish Chroniclers, the women of the Early Chimu period occupied positions of great importance. In the potteries, however, they are depicted chiefly in circumstances of servitude or as witches. The owl-jar represents old age in a woman occupied by magic arts. The owl-face, with its realistic modelling heightened by brownish paint, is probably an allusion to night and darkness when the black arts are most appropriately practiced.Pathological representations of the Mochica people are illustrated in two portrait heads in the newly-acquired group. One of them portrays the deeply slashed and bandaged head of a man who has either been in battle or hideously maltreated. The face wears an expression of deep suffering and reproach, as if the wounds had been unjustly inflicted. In the second example an amusingly cranky expression is portrayed on the face of an old man who is suffering from some affliction of the jaw.A second celebrated type of Mochica pottery is represented by one example in the collection: a round, stirrup-handle jar with a ceremonial scene painted in reddish-brown. The decoration, covering the body of the vessel, represents figures of winged men masked as birds who are engaged in some sort of ritualistic performance: They are clothed in short tunics with long, cuffed sleeves, and their legs and hands are painted. In the right hand they carry an object or weapon something like a clipping shears. With this upheld they race after each other in great abandon. The illusion of movement is marked, lending the scene great vitality and showing the Mochica artist to have been as gifted in the use of line as in form.The interest and affection aroused in Mochica artists by animals, and especially by birds, is shown in several stirrup-handle jars in this group. The parrot illustrated above is a particularly good example because it displays the intensely naturalistic result achieved by slight and knowing exaggeration. Here the body of the jar is covered with a cream slip and details are emphasized by painting.These portraits and vessels are characteristic of the realistic spirit animating the Mochica artists. Another group, composed of painted stirrup-handled jars, shows them to have been interested in linear designs which have nothing to do with realism. One of these, bearing a stylish step-scroll design painted in reddish-brown on a cream slip, is characteristic of this particular type of pot.For the most part, however, the Mochica potteries are realistic, sometimes charmingly, sometimes painfully, and sometimes grotesquely, but always compellingly. And when the observer realizes that the Mochica artists arrived at their ends without the means of any mechanical aid whatsoever, one appreciates more fully their supreme artistry in the humble medium of clay.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Mochica portrait jar illustrating the characteristic realism of early ceramic wares in the northern coastal area of Peru.
  2. Stirrup-handle jar with a ceremonial scene painted in reddish-brown on a cream slip, Peruvian, Mochica. Dunwoody Fund
  3. Mochica jar with conventionalized design.
  4. Jar representing and old woman with an owl's face.
  5. Mochica parrot jar.
  6. Mochica jar representing a captive chieftain with his hands bound behind him. Ethel M. van Derlip Fund
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Source: "A Group of Mochica Pottery," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 35, no. 5 (February, 1946): 22-27.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009