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: A Group of Peruvian Potteries


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The ancient belief that death was an after-life, in a more real sense than the modern world envisages life after death, is one for which everyone who is interested in the course of civilization must be eternally grateful. For were it not for the intimate evidences of civilization unearthed from ancient tombs, much that is now known about early peoples would be unknown. It would be impossible to say that the Chinese or the Egyptians, the Mexicans or the Peruvians, dressed in such and such a manner, or worshipped this or hunted that. But because the ancients looked upon their dead as leading an after-life very much like the life they had lived while moving about above the earth, they buried with them not only the cherished possessions that had been a part of their earthly existence, but more practical objects such as vessels for eating and drinking. It is from these possessions that the dim picture of many an ancient civilization has come to life for us.The latest example, in the Institute, of a civilization taking shape from tomb finds, is represented by a group of Peruvian potteries and textiles dating from about the sixth century. And while it is, as yet, a small group, it opens the door to a further understanding of a civilization that flourished in Peru during the first six centuries of this era. The potteries comprising this recent purchase from the Dunwoody Fund are illustrated and described in this Bulletin. The textiles will be taken up later.Limited as they are, the potteries give evidence of a culture rich in inventive genius and highly skilled in the art of pottery which was brought to such a high state of perfection by the two important coastal civilizations of Peru: the Chimu and the Nazca. The Chimu, the northernmost culture, is thought to be the older of the two and has been known for a longer time than its southern contemporary, the Nazca. It was only at the beginning of this century, thanks to researches undertaken by Dr. Max Uhle, that the extent of the Nazca civilization began to be known. With the chance to compare the arts of both, it became apparent that the Nazca culture, despite the fact that it derived from the Chimu, was the riper and more imaginative of the two. There is a definite family resemblance between them, inasmuch as both were profoundly interested in man and nature and both had many decorative motifs in common, but each is, nevertheless, distinct from the other.The potteries just acquired by the Institute were all recovered from graves in the sandy beaches along the coast of Peru. They are generally known as huacos, a term derived from huaca, the Indian word for a holy place, and therefore suggestive of the tombs from which most Peruvian pottery of the pre-Inca period has been obtained. The Institute's huacos represent, with one exception, the potter's art in the region of Nazca, capital city of the south Peruvian civilization, which is located some two hundred miles south of Lima. Its pottery is distinguished from that of other coastal groups by the polychrome painting that decorates it, just as Chimu pottery is distinguished by modelling in the round. From these two different styles of expression the peoples along the central coast borrowed freely, combining polychrome decoration with modelling, but the Nazca and Chimu confined themselves almost exclusively to their own characteristic methods. The fact that some Chimu vases are decorated with painting, and that certain Nazca vases bear details in relief, need not cause confusion because the Chimu painting was not in polychrome and the Nazca modelling was always subordinate to painting.The Nazca potteries are generally simple in form, made of a fine, well-fired clay, and usually completely covered by a highly polished brown, deep red, or milk-white slip. The decoration, consisting of forms inspired by nature, or real and fantastic birds, animals, and fish, or of the human head, is painted in colors that include white, pale yellow, many shades of red and brown, yellow gray, and all the tones of yellow. The Nazca artists used color audaciously and knowingly, creating harmonious combinations where one would expect none by the simple device of setting off color areas by a black line.Among the Nazca potteries, none is more characteristic than the vases representing a human head, whether it be a living head, a dead one, or the mask of a mummy. An example of the latter, illustrates the conventionalized manner of depicting the mummy mask. The head, with the exception of the nose and ears which are modelled in low relief, is painted in red, black, and white. The treatment of the face around the eye and cheek area is especially characteristic, as is the turban-like binding of the head.The Nazca tendency to model certain details of their anthropomorphic vases emerges more clearly in the large vases. Having the shape of an entire personage in a crouching position, but in the former only the nose is modelled. The other details of the body, as well as the necklace and an unidentified object carried in the hands, are painted in yellow, red, black, and gray on a highly polished brown surface. The second figure vase, representing a crouching woman whose hands break out in relief from the painted body to hold a human head, is interesting for the design around the lower part of the body, where the knees emerge to break the outline. Here, painted in yellow, red, and gray on a dark ground is a frieze in which the human head furnishes the element of design. One motif, reduced to a huge eye, a nose, and hair, alternates with another in which the lower part of the head is framed in a collar arrangement formed of long hooks and points. A further simplification of the human head may be seen in a small bowl, not illustrated, in which nothing but three dots remain to suggest the intention of the decorator.The slightly macabre character of the head frieze on this vase is multiplied many times in the Nazca vases on which pure trophy heads constitute the main design. These are severed heads, with streaming hair, mouth and eyelids sometimes pierced with thorns, traces of blood around the neck, and a cord for suspension emerging from the skull. Examples of this type may be seen on a wide-mouthed jar decorated with a painted idol holding a sceptre in his left hand and a trophy head in his right. A second head appears below his elbow, and three others are suspended from his belt. These heads, reminiscent of nothing so much as certain late paintings of Picasso, wear a lost, slightly mad, and sinister expression that chills the blood, and indicate, by the frequency with which they appear on Nazca pottery, a degree of cruelty and a practice of human sacrifice appalling in its scope.Further examples of painting and modelling in combination are illustrated in two jugs. Here the necks of the jugs have been painted to represent a face, and again the nose is the one element in relief. The fantastic animals decorating the bodies of these jugs represent the puma, a beast that figured as one of the first gods in the Peruvian pantheon. In one case the head only is present. In the other the whole beast is portrayed, and a stylish specimen it is, with its polished yellow body decorated with white polka dots. In both jugs the body is divided into two color areas, the lower one black and the upper dark red. This form of vase was a popular one with the Pachacamac people further north, except that in examples from that region the mouth is almost invariably represented by a deeply incised line.The puma appears again, this time in a rather comically fierce vein, in the globular vase. It is an unusually graceful form on which the design has been artfully disposed. Flanking it are two other characteristic types. One is a wide-mouthed bowl in which the decorative scheme consists of a band of human figures placed in a horizontal position around the bowl. In this instance they appear to be swimming, for the background is made up of a series of lines representing water. The third vase in the group represents a frog, symbol of water and fertility. The body is painted in polychrome, but the head is modelled. The Nazca interest in birds is reflected in the beaker vase, where a long-necked white bird, with a beak like a pelican, alternates with sinuously curved snakes to constitute a frieze around the body. This vase, like most of the Nazca examples in the group, has a rounded bottom; a detail that suggests that the vases were usually placed on the sand, and one that opens up interesting possibilities concerning their use.The contrast between the imaginative quality of the Nazca potteries and the realism of the Chimu cannot, unfortunately, be pointed up in the Institute's group of Peruvian potteries because of lack of Chimu examples. An excellent means of comparing the two, however, may be had by studying the splendid plates in La Céramique Ancienne du Pérou by R. and M. d'Harcourt. It will be immediately apparent that the Chimu were a realistic people, with a superb gift of portraiture and the ability to set forth in their potteries, whether by modelling or painting, an exact picture of their way of life. A vase which represents an idol and emanated from the Chimu region, gives some idea of the extent to which they perfected ceramic sculpture, but it does not convey any hint of the fidelity with which they portrayed their own people. Many of their vases are as revealing as those of ancient Greece, and the portrait vases give as intimate a view of individual types as do many gothic sculptures.But if the nature of the Chimu culture cannot be clearly divined from actual examples in this group, some understanding of the Nazca can be established from an examination of their potteries. These, together with the textiles, which have been included in a small exhibition of the Arts of Ancient Peru, will give an interesting picture of Peruvian civilization before the Inca period.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Pottery vase in the shape of a human head painted to represent a mummy mask. Peruvian, VI century.
  2. A group of pottery vases with painted decoration. Peruvian, Nazca, about VI century. Dunwoody Fund.
  3. Vase from Nazca with frieze of birds.
  4. Anthropomorphic vase with painted details from the Nazca region of Peru.
  5. Group of vases with painted and modelled decoration. Peruvian, Nazca, about VI century. Dunwoody Fund.
  6. Vase modelled in the form of a crouching idol. Painted details. Peruvian, Chimu region.
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Source: "A Group of Peruvian Potteries," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 32, no. 6 (February, 1943): 18-23.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009