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: An Example of Totonac Sculpture


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Linked with the Chinese Bodhisattvas by the fact that it too is an example of an ancient and alien art, although this time of the western hemisphere, is a carved stone yoke of the Totonac culture recently purchased by the Institute through the Dunwoody Fund. If the observer is at first bewildered by these unfamiliar sculptures it might be helpful to remember that strange works or art, like strange ideas, must be assimilated gradually, and that it is almost always necessary to empty the mind of preconceived notions before attempting to arrive at an understanding. This is not easy but it is worthwhile in the end, for it opens the eyes to much that is beautiful once one has agreed to approach the new experience on its own terms.For this reason it is perhaps fortunate that little is known concerning the Totonac Indians who inhabited the region of Vera Cruz from about the ninth century, and that nothing is certainly known concerning the use of the stone yoke by which their art is now represented in the Institute. To a large extent this example of pre-Spanish sculpture in America can have its own way with the observer. Its enigmatic character in now way detracts from its interest, however. On the contrary, it enhances it, for no one can look at this strange object without being struck by the quality of its workmanship, or without wanting to delve into the history of ancient American art, just now beginning to receive the attention it deserves.The yoke is fashioned from a magnificently carved piece of hard stone that has been given the shape of an ordinary horse collar. The decoration, extending over the upper and outer surfaces of the stone and around the corners at the ends, consist of a grotesque human figure crouching on the ground and gripping the coiled body of a monster whose jaws are spread wide to hold the head of the man.The ends of the yoke are finished with a vigorously modelled human head gripped in the jaw of a monster, and the incidental spaces of the surface are filled in with geometric designs. It is not known what exactly, this decorative scheme is meant to represent, but it may be supposed to be associated in some way with the worship of the earth. That the yoke itself was a funeral object designed to be placed around the head of a corpse seems reasonable in view of its shape and decoration.The Totonacs, on the evidence of this example alone, appear to have been gifted sculptors, with a keenly developed sense of design and a vigor in executing it that must have placed them among the great artists of their time. In this yoke they have produced a work of art that is at once exciting and disquieting, for it prompts one to explore further the dark mysteries of the Totonac civilization.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Carved Stone Yoke from the Vera Cruz Region of Mexico. Totonac, IX to XII centuries. Dunwoody Fund.
  2. Stone Yoke of the Totonac civilization. Detail showing head at open end of yoke. Dunwoody Fund.
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Source: "An Example of Totonac Sculpture," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 31, no. 23 (June, 1942): 80-81.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009