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Eagle Man, Aztec,
14th-16th cent.
© Michel Zabé / AZA.
Reproduction authorized
by the Instituto Nacional
de Antropología e Historia

The Aztec World

October 13, 2008 - April 19, 2009

The Field Museum
1400 S. Lake Shore Dr.
Chicago IL 60605
tel.: 312.922.9410
hours: Mon-Sun, 10a-5p

The Aztec World is a presentation of over 300 objects whose supple range of artistry and intention are remarkable at every turn. As diverse as these artifacts are, from the tiny clay spindle whorl to the multi-ton stone carving, all reflect one powerful unifying principle that melds them as articles from a single people. All reflect a cosmology that infused every moment of daily life with a cosmic significance, that of participation in a world which could at any moment be ended at the whim of the gods. That such an awareness led not only to reminders of the grimness of death, but also delicate evocations of the joy and vigor of life, are revealed in the many wares and works on display. Exclusive to the Field Museum, this study of the Aztec empire includes many artifacts never before shown in the United States. It runs through April 19. Now is the time to see it.

Based on new scholarship, The Aztec World portrays a wider range of social roles and contextual insights than are usually associated with this ancient people. One meets here the artifacts of commoners as well as kings, merchants as well as warriors. The result yields many surprises, not least of which are an unexpected sense of intimacy with the humanity of the makers of the goods of hearth and marketplace, in contrast with the awesome and often terror-inspiring monuments to war and temple sacrifice. The items to be seen date mainly from the 14th-16th century and include works in stone, ceramic, rare items of wood and a few in gold and copper. They range in size from tiny bells to monoliths from the temple precincts. Each section is grouped by social role, giving glimpses into the concerns of Aztec farmers, merchants, warriors, rulers and high priests, with a final area touching on the continuance of Aztec artistic style in the Colonial period which followed the conquest of the empire by Cortez in the early 1500s.

The Aztec Empire flourished for nearly 200 years, from 1325-1521, commanding the fertile Valley of Mexico and ruling over a rich network of tribute and trade from surrounding regions. A highly sophisticated warrior culture, whose poetry spoke movingly of flowers and whose pastimes for the young warrior elite included the ritual ballgame ollamaliztli and communal dance, went hand in hand with a powerful priesthood and royal presence. At the same time, artisans and merchants engaged in trade serving lively markets that saw tens of thousands of customers daily, while farmers supported the empire with their ability to harvest beans, squash and other staples from the earth and from reclamations of lake and marshland known as chinampas.

All of it turned on the linchpin of maintaining balance in a troubled and unstable cosmos, and on affirming the natural forces of life--and death--ever present in tenuous balance. The art of the Aztecs reflects concerns with things basic to life and its continuance. Agriculture and fertility, with their close associations to the natural cycles of death and rebirth, are a common link across the works shown here. Natural forms, including snakes, jaguars, rabbits, monkeys, flowers and even seashells abound. Human forms show a homage to physical hardiness as well as a strong awareness of life's cycles of birth, old age and death. Votive forms of gods, goddesses and ritual figures are given shape in both ceramic and stone. Glyphs, a direct means of pictographic communication, give lively voice to stone carvings. All are handled with a sophisticated aesthetic mastery that spans a wide range of materials, subjects and motifs.

Rabbit Vessel, Aztec, ca. 1500
© Michel Zabé / AZA.
Reproduction authorized
by the Instituto Nacional
de Antropología e Historia

The opening section, Farmers, focuses on those whose close ties with the earth and with seasonal cycles can be understood by realizing that on their shoulders rested the need to provide basic subsistence for the empire, including its urban center of over 200,000 city dwellers. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, located on what is now present-day Mexico City, was like a modern urban city in many respects. Among these was that its food was produced outside the city perimeter and transported into the urban center for to the city residents. The city, the heart of the empire, depended on its farmers. A good farming year meant abundance for the empire; a poor one, famine and want.

The farmer was thus deeply concerned with the earth and its fertility, and with all the unpredictable natural forces that lay beyond his control. Such forces included seasonal cycles, rain and sun, the nature of the produce he was growing, the creatures whose supernatural powers might help or hinder him, even his own hardiness of body, so essential to performing the hard labor of cultivation.

The images he kept near him reflected such concerns. Sculptures of flora and fauna are rendered with vigor and a realism unexpected, given that the more well-known imagery of the Aztecs is of the highly stylized variety. The serpent, a recurring theme in Aztec art, was associated with fertility and considered closer to the gods than other creatures. Stone sculpture of a knotted snake, displayed on a low pedestal for complete appreciation in the round, is a medium-sized image of the reptile. Treating stone as a central mass adorned with low relief was common to Aztec art, usually in highly stylized renderings. Here the artist used it to bring out the undulating coils as lines of contained vitality that evoke the sinewy power of the reptile. The serpentine coils seem to writhe not just on the surface but evoke the inner coiling of the animal. A small frog carved in greenstone, and a highly finished, delightfully succinct rendering of a squash, further show the artist's capacity to evoke the presence of those things close to life, agriculture and sustenance.

At the same time, free-standing stone sculptures of men and women in hard black basalt reveal a sensitivity to humanity, to strength and hardiness as well as old age. A standing man is sturdy, his build and vigor the picture of a man in his prime. An aged man and old woman are portrayed with wrinkles incised deeply on their cheeks. Farm labor required physical strength and health. Age brought wisdom, but the failing of the body. These are idealized representations, general types rather than specific individuals, and represent the celebration of physical ideal as well as the realization of its inevitable loss.

From small, fine vessels to powerful near-life-size figures, ceramics yield work of significant drama throughout The Aztec World. Three examples show the varied handling of vessels and their accomplishment of design. If farm labor was hardship, it also had its holidays and observances. Among them was the drinking of pulque, a mildly alcoholic beverage fermented for social sharing on ritual occasions. A rabbit-shaped pulque vessel is one of the surprising articles revealed in this exhibit. The white and opaque liquor of pulque was associated with the moon, as was the rabbit; through mingling of association the rabbit became symbolic of intoxication. In the pulque vessel, a bean-shaped container with narrow low collar forms the body of a bunny who rests his head on his crossed paws. Like the artist of the stone serpent, the potter has sensitively observed the rabbit's head and forepaws, and the little scut of a tail protruding from the opposite end.

Painted Ceramic Bowl,
Aztec, 14th-16th cent.
Polychrome ceramic
John Weinstein
© The Field Museum

Other Aztec pottery bears designs reflecting seasonal cycles or love of geometric decoration. Standing apart from these, two pieces, completely unadorned are compelling in their refinement of form. These are a large ceramic bowl, broad and of shallow depth, its companion a gently rounded olla or water jar. Plain red slip decoration enhances their rightness of proportion, while the vessels themselves are testament to a high sophistication of taste and aesthetic.

The section on Artisans and Merchants evokes home, hearth and the liveliness of trade. Small artifacts in quantity and variety hint at the offerings in the empire's largest marketplace, the Great Market of Tlateloco (sister city of Tenochtitlán). This extensive market once served 25,000 to 40,000 people daily. A small ceramic mold on display, only a few inches high, was used to turn out clay votive figurines in quantity. It gives an example of the strategies adopted to duplicate goods quickly, in this case a small statuette of what is possibly Cihuacoatl, an earth and fertility goddess. Spindle whorls, small ceramic discs used to steady a wooden spindle when spinning thread, bear designs that have been shown to be accurate, if stylized portrayals of the blossoms and seeds of local flora. The decorative impulse of the Aztecs reflected agricultural concerns and the liveliness of ornament down to the smallest detail. Small copper bells, obsidian blades, and other items are selections from the extensive trade networks of the empire, which reached even to the far coasts.

The Warrior section marks a transition into matters more serious, more concerned with the knife-edge of life and death. Elevated into a realm noble, competitive, flowery, and short-lived, the young Aztec warriors were the elite of the people, accorded special privileges and celebrated status. War and the games of war had been rendered into a highly sophisticated social fabric which praised and celebrated its warriors while at the same time rejoicing in rituals critical to the maintenance of the cosmos incorporating capture of prisoners and battles to the death. Warriors could be drawn from a variety of social classes, with the elite drawn from the sons of noblemen, and of these, those awarded Eagle and Jaguar status the highest. Included here is a stone goal-hoop from the competitive ballgame ollamaliztli, a soccer-like game used alternately to maintain physical prowess, and as an occasion of ritual sacrifice; a millstone-like platform used for ritual combat; and a set of fragile, beautiful bowls for the young warriors, with geometric and flower ornament that are some of the finest pottery in the exhibition.

Ahuizotl, name glyph for ruler,
Aztec, 14th-16th cent.
© Michel Zabé / AZA.
Reproduction authorized
by the Instituto Nacional
de Antropología e Historia

Joining them are large pieces that embody the drama of Aztec belief, ambitious creations in ceramic that express the deepest dualities of Aztec life. Incense burner depicting a deity stands 36 x 30 in., a remarkable piece of large polychrome ceramic. The figure wears an Eagle armor headdress, a breastplate adorned with human hands, and is dressed in an ornate kilt or skirt. The tail-plates of the Eagle armor trail at the back. Both the figure and brazier are painted in colorful polychrome pigments in the manner of the codices, manuscripts used by the Aztecs for accounting and recordkeeping. The amazing number of freestanding elements represents a sophisticated skill in ceramic firing. The warrior's adornments and the plates of his armor bristle all around him, an impressive and warlike sight. But the gaping maw and sunken eye sockets are the Aztec symbology for a dead body, partially descended into skeletal state. The brazier-warrior is at once life and death and all its inevitability: a figure bristling with fight and martial vigor, at the same time already dead, traversing the underworld.

Directly on from the brazier stands another Eagle warrior. Eagle Man is man-height, tall enough to look a warrior in the eye. Also titled in the catalog as A ceramic statue of the sun, dressed as an elite Eagle Warrior, this is a life-sized rendering of a human male in Eagle armor. His face is inscrutable and serene. The eagle beak makes an assertive framing of his reserved features. From his arms fan out the hook-edged feathering of the Eagle armor, while clawlike protrusions at his knees are the armor's representation of the talons of the bird. Ambitious in conception, this large work is made from five individual ceramic pieces assembled to create the full-scale figure. The impression it conveys is one of a calm, yet martial alertness. Like the idealized statue of the Farmers' section, it captures the warrior at the height of his physical power.

In grim opposition stands its companion statue, towering further on at the intersection between the area devoted to rulers and that of high priests: Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Underworld. His skull-head once bore curly human hair, symbolic of chaos; he glares and gnashes teeth, talons grasping greedily. From his skeletal ribcage drops his liver, a ghastly orb hanging down with two protrusions. With his bent-forward stance and raised claws he seems poised to snatch souls from where he stands. Research reveals this statue was once dressed in cloth garments and bathed with human blood. Where the Eagle Warrior evokes a warrior at his prime, the Mictlantecuhtli statue portrays the fearsome aspect of death.

Both figures were once housed under the same roof in a structure known as the House of the Eagles. If imposing in the subdued yet even lighting of the exhibition, how much more so must they have been by flickering torchlight of the glow of a brazier. They capture the duality inherent Aztec existence that is, clear-sightedly of this ancient people, a duality inherent in life itself. Everything which lives, fights to live and thrive. Everything which lives will also die. Even the warrior, with his mastery of weapons and cultivation of physical perfection, will perish. For the Aztecs, if he was fortunate, he would do so in a sacrificial act that preserved the cosmic balance. It was, indeed, the finest destiny to which he could look forward.

That tension between life and death, the realization of the fragility and fleeting quality of life, are all seen here. The human figures of old man, old woman, the coiled snake, frog, all bring something approachable to life and its inevitable aging. The fine bowls and trade goods speak of the vigor of living and the aesthetic pleasures therein. The Eagle Warrior, Mictlantecuhtli, and warrior-brazier portray the two sides of the coin, life and mortality. The efforts of Aztec rulers, touched on briefly in the exhibition, reveal their amazing range of talents and endeavors: architects, civil engineers, leaders and warriors.

Coyote Warrior Goblet,
Aztec, 14th-16th cent.
© Michel Zabé / AZA.
Reproduction authorized
by the Instituto Nacional
de Antropología e Historia

In contrast to all these, and representing that transition into formal sacred space, is the section of the High Priests. Representing with the very mysteries of life, death, and cyclical time itself, are the monumental artifacts of the temple precinct. Among them, the massive Stone serpent head evokes the merciless qualities of the universe. Monolithic, stylized, heartless, this colossal solid form stands in direct stylistic opposition to the lively Stone sculpture of a knotted snake seen earlier in the Farmers' section. Its unwavering eye and row of serrated fangs give a shiver, even today.

Further artifacts from the sacred precinct and the Great Temple include sacrificial stones, effigies, offering vessels. The Aztec World seeks to treat the Aztec practice of human sacrifice reasonably, and succeeds. It does not downplay the fact that bloodletting and sacrifice were an almost universal practice in the world of the Aztecs, but gives it the important context of the essence of the practice to the Aztec worldview. Although sacrifice was incorporated into a political framework of subjugating enemy provinces and provided rationale for the necessities of war, it also had a critical significance in maintaining the relationship with the gods, who had sacrificed of themselves to create the world, and must therefore be both placated, and maintained.

This empire of hundreds of thousands fell to a handful of Spanish soldiers in 1521. Hernan Cortes and his men, along with rebellious locals, broke Aztec rule and initiated the Colonial period. A closing section shows the synthesis of Aztec style with the new styles and motifs imported from Europe by the Spaniards. Among the objects here, a small page known as the Codex Tetlapalco (ca. 1557), also known as the Codex Saville, gives a glimpse of a rare preserved work on paper. Though this is the only actual codex on display, images from other codices such as the Florentine Codex are excerpted as enlarged print reproductions throughout the exhibition.

If there is a criticism of The Aztec World it is that the wall texts and item annotations end up seeming slight, with some items hardly annotated at all. The approach leaves a hunger for greater detail on some of the more unusual or striking articles. The full-color exhibition catalogue helps somewhat, but does not include images of all items shown. That's a touch of disappointment when hoping for remembrances or elaboration on some favorite works. What the catalogue does include is nicely photographed, and it also expands on the exhibition with additional photographs and a number of essays, including an overview and chapters on social organization, art, culture, and forensic studies of the health of the Aztec populace.

The Aztec World presents a wide-ranging view of Aztec culture, seen in the diverse beauty of its artifacts. Its agricultural focus, achievements in technical skills and trade, and its divine intent to keep the cosmos intact are all on exhibit here. Aztec art reveals themes representing all aspects of life, including birth, old age, and death; sophisticated aesthetic models; observations of the immediacy of the natural world; ritually marked objects of war and games of war. Warriors preserved the cosmic order through battle, priests through sacrifice, farmers through cultivation. Blood and hearts were precious, rich offerings to the gods to encourage them to maintain the earthly processes on which all human existence depended. The Aztecs participated in a world of sacred content. Their bowls and sculptures, votive figures and trade goods reveal their vigor and their connection with life, and their art leaves that mystery to us. The Aztec World is at the Field Museum through April 19, 2009.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: The exhibition catalogue for The Aztec World (Abrams: Oct 2008) and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through ArtScope.net's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.

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