Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 15, 2021
Julia Guernsey Human Figuration and Fragmentation in Preclassic Mesoamerica: From Figurines to Sculpture Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 278 pp.; 203 b/w ills. Cloth $99.99 (9781108478991)

Art historical studies of Preclassic sculpture in Mesoamerica have long noted a “homocentric” focus on the representation of the human body. In her pioneering study of Olmec stone monuments, Los Hombres de la Piedra (Universidad Autónoma de Mexico, 1977), Beatríz de la Fuente dubbed their creators “the men of stone,” referencing a cultural predilection for sculpting near life-size human bodies in both two and three dimensions. Julia Guernsey returns us to a consideration of human bodies as the dominant subject of Preclassic art in Human Figuration and Fragmentation in Preclassic Mesoamerica, managing to both dramatically expand the field of inquiry and tie the larger trends of figuration in both stone and clay to a specific set of sociopolitical transformations that occurred along the southern coast of Mesoamerica during the Late Preclassic period (300 BCE–250 CE).

The volume provides a sweeping examination of human figuration in multiple mediums, while also mobilizing the study of these objects to address how and why the representation of human bodies occasionally became a more circumscribed practice during the Late Preclassic. Guernsey argues that bodies represented in stone and clay—created through different processes and on radically different scales—had the ability to express but also act upon both individual identities and the greater social order in which those identities were embedded.  Throughout her text, Guernsey asks us to consider human figuration not simply as an expression of social or political forces but also as a tool in the formation and negotiation of those forces. Reviewing and analyzing evidence drawn from the art historical, archaeological, epigraphic, and ethnohistorical records, she argues that human bodies and their representations—whether whole or in pieces—allowed Preclassic societies to conceptualize the ontological nature of personhood, the role of the individual in relation to their community, and the relationship of humans to cosmological frameworks of time and space.

The preface to the book introduces the various chapters, while also situating the role of human figuration within the production and transformation of sociopolitical structures. Chapter 1 continues to lay the groundwork for the volume by introducing the methodological, theoretical, and conceptual parameters of the study. In this chapter Guernsey argues for the importance of placing stone sculptures of human bodies in conversation with clay figurines in order to create a more holistic view of human figuration than has been evinced in previous scholarship. Critiquing the traditional art historical divide between stone sculpture as “high” art and clay figurines as “low” art or craft, she nonetheless acknowledges that these binaries can prove useful for structuring scholarly analysis, and her own study has a tendency to reinforce these rather problematic divisions (7). In this chapter she also introduces a number of theoretical frameworks to which she returns later in the volume. These include the concept of high culture, as theorized by John Baines and Norman Yoffee (“Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” in The Archaic State, School of American Research Press, 1998), which resurfaces in chapter 7 as an explanatory model for the transference of figural representation to circumscribed, elite contexts during the Late Preclassic.

Chapters 2 and 3 follow with a broad survey of human figuration in stone and clay during Mesoamerica’s Early Preclassic (2000–1000 BCE) and Middle Preclassic (1000–300 BCE) periods. Chapter 2 outlines the trends of monumental stone sculpture from the Early to Middle Preclassic, noting the central role of human bodies in the construction of pictorial narratives. Here she also introduces the notion of intervisuality, first defined by Nicholas Mirzoeff in Exploding Aesthetics (Editions Rodopi B.V., 2001), observing that these bodies sculpted in stone must necessarily have recalled not only the bodies of living people but also the “innumerable, small, clay representations that were fundamental to daily ritual in Preclassic Mesoamerica” (27).

Chapter 3 surveys the contexts, forms, and possible functions of ceramic figurines throughout Mesoamerica’s Early and Middle Preclassic, while chapter 4 is given over to a detailed examination of the Middle Preclassic figurine record at the site of La Blanca, in western Guatemala. Both chapters emphasize the social roles of figurines, with significant attention paid to their phenomenological and animate qualities. Chapter 3 also has a small section dedicated to the other mediums of Mesoamerican figurine production, including ethnohistorical accounts of ephemeral figurines constructed of wax, paper, seeds, amaranth dough, and wood (48–49). Greenstone figurines are also mentioned, but they are not included in the larger survey, which is exclusively concerned with figuration in clay. It is apparent that greenstone figurines do not play into the larger argument that Guernsey is building toward in her final chapters; however, in a volume that purports to have Preclassic figuration as its central topic, their absence is notable and leaves an argumentative hole in an otherwise comprehensive text.

Chapter 5 transitions to a consideration of the intentional fragmentation of many figurines (both at La Blanca and elsewhere), suggesting that the breakage was not an act of desecration, but rather was used to communicate something fundamental about the partible nature of the actual human body and, by extension, the ontological nature of personhood. Chapter 5 stands apart from the rest of the book, having seemingly little to do with the overall argument that Guernsey is constructing about the role of human figuration in social structures of authority. At best it sits uneasily in relation to more tangential arguments regarding the social and ontological roles played by figurines. However, to my knowledge, the chapter is the most richly researched and theorized discussion of body partibility in the scholarship of Mesoamerica. As such, it constitutes a crucial resource on the subject for art historians and archaeologists who encounter the fragments of bodies, both real and represented, with regularity but have had little guidance for thinking about or discussing these pieces as part of a larger Mesoamerican whole.

The final chapters, 6 and 7, bring us into the Late Preclassic to examine the decline of ceramic figurine production, which appears concurrent with a dramatic expansion of figuration in stone, specifically focusing on elite bodies. Marshalling data and theoretical frameworks from her previous chapters, Guernsey argues that within Mesoamerica’s southern coastal region, kingly bodies carved in stone came to be viewed as more efficacious, chosen by both elites and non-elites because they were better equipped to embody and direct divine or supernatural power when ritually activated by the ruler. Simultaneously, figurines may have become less desirable, not only to elites seeking personal aggrandizement but also to their former (non-elite) creators, who may have viewed them as less effective tools to affect or manipulate the natural and social orders. Returning to the notion of high culture in chapter 7, Guernsey suggests that elite power was predicated on the superior moral position of the ruler, whose portrait blurred the lines between human and supernatural and whose beauty evinced his elevated position in the social order. While these chapters focus on stone sculptures as mechanisms of elite power, they also provide some suggestions for why these developments were acceptable, even attractive, to non-elites.

Throughout the text, Guernsey’s arguments are always intriguing and often compelling. The interrelation of stone sculpture with figuration in clay allows her to move beyond the realm of elites to consider the aesthetic systems that cut across social classes and seemingly distinct spheres of production. However, the breadth of the topic presents organizational challenges, and the flow of argumentation can seem disjointed at times, with some lines of inquiry left underdeveloped or incomplete. To her credit, Guernsey acknowledges this at the outset, stating that the narrative is “untidy” and “polyphonic” (2). Certainly, the discussions that end each chapter help to ameliorate confusion by tying the threads of various sections and arguments together. However, this also highlights the potential pitfalls of deploying a broad study of Preclassic figuration in service to a more narrowly prescribed argument. On the one hand, the strategy provides historical depth to her account of Late Preclassic sculpture along the southern coast, but on the other it necessarily also either circumscribes what can be said about human figuration or results in a text that “overflows” its own argumentative frameworks. However, these seem like minor issues when faced with the impressive deftness with which Guernsey manages to interweave an array of cross-disciplinary data and theoretical models to build her many-layered study.

Advanced students and scholars of Mesoamerican studies from a variety of disciplines will find something in this volume to appreciate, although it will appeal most to those with an interest in either the history of human figuration or the cultures of the Preclassic period. The scope and depth of both the evidence presented and the theoretical frameworks deployed make the volume less accessible to general readers and beginning students. Taken as a whole, this book is an ambitious contribution to the “discourse of image theory” that, while rooted in the study of Mesoamerica, also situates Preclassic figuration in relation to broader trends of archaic state formation and increasing sociopolitical complexity (1). Its most lasting legacy, however, might be in its expanding of the discourse of Mesoamerican bodily ontologies that move between part and whole, individual and communal, reality and representation.

Jillian Mollenhauer
Professor, Department of Art, Metropolitan State University of Denver