Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 1999
Richard Townsend, ed. Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past New York: Thames and Hudson in association with Art Institute of Chicago, 1998. 446 pp.; 258 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0500050929)

The lively ceramic traditions of ancient West Mexico are well-known: bold, painted warriors, women, and animals, including the famous Colima dogs; small painted house models and village scenes in which humans feast, play ball, and dance. Much of this work was created in the era between 200 B.C. and 300 A.D., the Late Formative phase of Mesoamerican cultural history. Although visually familiar, this work has never been well understood. It has seldom been studied on its own terms, but seen merely as a pale country cousin to the larger-scale visual traditions of the Maya, Aztec, and other Mesoamerican “high cultures.”

Until the publication of Ancient West Mexico in 1998, scholars and curators of Pre-Columbian art have had to rely principally on the landmark catalogue, Sculpture of Ancient West Mexico, published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1970 (expanded and updated in 1989), in order to understand the enigmatic funerary ceramics of this region. The Los Angeles County publication focused on just one major collection of the ceramics of the states of Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima. In contrast, the recent catalogue, written to accompany a major exhibition that premiered at the Art Institute of Chicago and traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, features more than two hundred works from numerous institutional and private collections.

Although the book is in large-scale format, lavishly illustrated with color plates, it differs from most exhibition catalogues in several respects. An interdisciplinary team of seventeen scholars has contributed to this volume. Art historians, archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and physical anthropologists, from Mexico and North America, have assembled a remarkably diverse group of essays that provide a vivid window on this region of the Pre-Columbian past.

After an introduction by Richard Townsend, Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the exhibition’s chief curator, the book is divided into four sections. The first, on “Archaeological Traditions,” contains three essays that present detailed data from excavations at Teuchitlan, Etzatlan, and Huitzilapa in Jalisco. While some of this data was previously known to archaeologists, it is here presented in a lucid, detailed format that will be of interest to all who study, curate, teach about, or collect West Mexican art. The data suggest that West Mexican cultures were more fully integrated into the Mesoamerican world view than previously thought. Instead of being simple egalitarian farmers, ancient West Mexicans were involved in complex, long-distance trade. At some sites, monumental shaft tombs were associated with circular ceremonial architecture. Evidence for craft specialization and social hierarchies was found, as well. Archaeologists Phil Weigand and Christopher Beekman convincingly demonstrate that “far from lagging behind, the sociocultural developments in West Mexico were progressing at the same rhythm as other emerging complex civilizations in Mesoamerica” (p. 40).

One of the most noteworthy features of this catalogue is, indeed, this detailed discussion of the archaeological contexts of West Mexican effigy ceramics. Until recently, very little was known about their archaeological provenience. Most pieces, in museums as well as private hands, were acquired through looting rather than scientific excavation.

The second section of the catalogue, on “Interpretation,” contains six essays on such themes as shamanism, feasting, rulership, and the ballgame. While all provide useful new interpretations, editor Richard Townsend’s essay, “Before Gods, Before Kings,” is especially insightful in demonstrating that widespread, ancient Mesoamerican modes of thought underpin these visual traditions. Mark Miller Graham’s “The Iconography of Rulership in Ancient West Mexico” provides a superb corrective to old reductionist ways of thinking about such issues as center versus periphery, by means of iconographic analysis of emblems of rulership in widespread use.

In a section titled “Comparative Views,” four essays deal with such issues as trade, settlement patterns, and cultural evolution. The final section, “A Modernist Perspective,” consists of just one essay that outlines the influence of West Mexican art on modern artists. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo amassed significant collections of terra-cotta figures from West Mexico. Art historian Barbara Braun ably charts the visual impact these objects had on the work of these artists, as well as that of Rufino Tamayo and Miguel Covarrubias. More surprisingly, Braun also proposes that West Mexican figural groups provided the visual solutions to formal problems posed by British sculptor Henry Moore. (pp. 272–74) Less persuasive is Braun’s assertion that Colima-style figural effigies of ducks may have inspired the form and spirit of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck. While she ably charts the importance of Disney employee travel to Latin America in the making of numerous educational and commercial films targeting Latin American audiences, her assertions about the formal relations between Disneyesque iconography and Pre-Columbian forms leave this reader unimpressed.

Although this is an exhibition catalogue, the actual “catalogue” of objects is a remarkably truncated affair, consisting of just eight pages of a checklist of 226 objects, accompanied by some two dozen small photos. (pp. 283–90) The rest of the object photos, most of much larger scale, are scattered throughout the fifteen essays. Some are discussed in the text while others are not. This reader misses the convention of the more standard catalogue entry devoted to each object. In the “Notes to the Reader,” which opens this brief catalogue section, are buried some surprising ideas about the objects at hand. After describing the regional stylistic designations, the editor writes: “Within each stylistic group or cluster in West Mexico, we may suppose that there exist primary, ‘masterpiece’ figures, and a whole corpus of replications, derivations, and revivals, following in a pattern of canonical hierarchy” (p. 283). Based on all we know of indigenous Amerindian pottery-making practices, in which replication with slight variation is the norm, it seems unlikely that such characterizations as “masterpiece” and “canonical hierarchy” have much relevance here. Despite my few reservations, this catalogue is a landmark contribution to the field of Pre-Columbian art and archaeology. Its cross-disciplinary model of research collaboration is exemplary; its richly nuanced interpretations of this figurative tradition, which build on earlier interpretations, will stand as the definitive pronouncement for some time to come.

Janet Catherine Berlo
University of Rochester