Aztec Empire exhibit

Charles Downey has visited The Aztec Empire exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (lucky guy!). I highly recommend you read his excellent review if you are interested in the Aztec culture as I am. As he says “For someone who has not yet visited any of the great Mesoamerican sites…”, I’m pleased to see some of these works online, and I envy New Yorkers and visitors who get to see the real thing!

“Catalogue # 17, fragment of an anthropomorphic brazier, Aztec, fired clay and pigment, 18 by 22 by 9 centimeters, circa 1300 A. D., Museo Universitario de Ciencas y Arte, UNAM, Mexico City.”

Note how immense in scale it seems, yet it is actually quite small, less than life size.

Amongst the additional links that Charles Downey always provides is Michele Leight’s essay for The City Review, from which I captured the above image which is my favourite, (like Downey’s’). Here’s an interesting quote to perk your interest:

The show at the Guggenheim is biased towards the most pleasing aspects of Aztec civilization and it is noticeable that there are far fewer sacrificial daggers and references to human sacrifice in the Guggenheim exhibit than there were at Burlington House; gory as it seemed back then in the tender teenage years, the daggers got and maintained my attention for life, so my only criticism of this show would be the down-playing of the ritual violence that was ever-present in the lives of this particular ruling elite.

The young, who are wise and fooled by nothing, are fascinated by the less tolerant human tendencies in any given culture, and it would not have hurt this show to include more of that aspect of the Aztec ruling class.

As the young know from playground politics and the history books they are required to read throughout their schooling, all cultures have a violent artery, or less than perfect underbelly – not the least of which being the British who used hanging, drawing and quartering well into the 18th century to punish wrong doers and to entertain the crowds who flocked to these barbaric rituals as we might now go to the theatre or rock concerts – this was a good three hundred years after the Aztec empire. I studied the Tudors in depth – and therefore mentally endured many beheadings and gruesome executions – so I have no illusions. To my knowledge the Aztecs never beheaded a queen in public.

It was only recently that the electric chair was put aside as being an unnecessarily barbaric means of ending a convict’s life – but art, in the form of Andy Warhol’s lurid silkscreen images, reminded us of the barbarism inherent in our own civilization, as did those gruesome, jade handled daggers at The Museum of Mankind. They instantly connected my childhood sensibilities with the relentless obsession of all civilizations with death, ritual and punishment. So before anyone gets on their high horse about human sacrifice – which the Aztecs practiced to appease the gods, not as a punishment – check the history books.

January 30, 2005 in Art Exhibitions, Rock Art & Archaeology by Marja-Leena