Big Olmec show coming to de Young Museum


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Entering the special exhibition galleries at the de Young Museum, you encounter the colossal head of an Olmec ruler, his furrowed brow, almond eyes and fleshy lips exquisitely carved from a basalt boulder 3,000 years ago. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 12,000 pounds, the sculpture overwhelms you with its physical presence, beauty and spiritual power.

Olmec_de Young MuseumIt’s one of 17 colossal heads that archaeologists and Mexican farmers unearthed from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century at sacred Olmec sites in southern Mexico. The civilization known as the mother culture of Mesoamerica – its art and religion profoundly influenced the succeeding Maya and Aztec cultures – flourished in the tropical gulf lowlands from 1800 B.C. to 400 B.C. Two of these amazing stone portraits are on view in “Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico,” opening Saturday at the de Young.

Organized by San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the show is the first major exhibition of Olmec art on the West Coast. It features about 150 objects drawn from museums throughout Mexico and the United States: monumental stone stelae, thrones and figures depicting humans, jaguars and supernatural animal-human hybrids, small, intricately carved and incised jadeite votive axes, figurines and vessels. There are fearsome abstract stone faces, as well as polished jade and greenstone ceremonial masks that, like many of the monumental works, are remarkable in their realism.

“At every turn, we hope people will be swept away by the majesty of these objects,” says Kathleen Berrin, the Fine Arts Museums’ curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. “You become filled with a kind of spiritual awe about them. Even the small ones have a sense of monumentality.”

The two colossal heads in the show were found at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo in the state of Veracruz, the capital of Olmec civilization from 1400 B.C. to 1000 B.C. Somber-faced “Colossal Head No. 5” opens the show; smiling “No. 9,” which weighs a mere 9,000 pounds, appears at the end. These massive heads were carved from giant boulders that had been hauled 100 miles, from the Tuxtla Mountains to San Lorenzo, by masses of men.

The statues arrived in San Francisco about 10 days ago on flatbed trucks from Los Angeles, packed in huge wood crates that were brought by forklift and dolly into the galleries. A crew from Atthowe Fine Art Services used a gantry to hoist and place them and many other monumental pieces.

Scholars believe that some of these boulders were originally made into monumental thrones, like the one from La Venta (900-400 B.C.) that merges human features with the fangs and ears of the jaguar, believed to be the Olmec deity of fertility and rain and a symbol of royalty. After the rulers died, their thrones were re-carved into commemorative portraits heads that, like so many of Olmec objects, served a spiritual purpose. Mesoamerican rulers were thought to be descended from the gods.

“We don’t know exactly what these images represent, but clearly they had something to do with Olmec religion,” Berrin says. The colossal heads, which were ritualistically lined up on a north-south axis and seen from below, “were meant to awe people, to bowl them over, the way they bowl us over.”

Working without metal tools, Olmec sculptors carved these magnificent works with stone and abrasives. The craftsmanship is extraordinary. So is the humanity that emanates from some of these monumental stone sculptures.

One of them is a seated cross-legged figure called “The Prince,” a peaceful, friendly presence whose smooth, rounded forms typify much Olmec art. His wide nose and full lips are rendered realistically. His helmet bears an emblem associated with the planet Venus. Then there’s the simple female figure, carved in an 8-foot stela, who’s wearing a pleated dress.

“Much of this art is very naturalistic. I think that’s why we’re so drawn to it,” says Berrin. “We like naturalism in our culture.” She finds pieces like that standing female figure and the half-kneeling ballplayer “very poignant. We’re taken by their sense of humanity. You try to reach back to who those people were. We’re trying to make that connection.”

One of the most intriguing pieces in the show is “Offering 4,” a gathering of 16 jadeite and serpentine figurines, about 6 inches tall, engaged in a some type of ceremonial ritual in front of six pillar-like celts, or votive axes. An offering to the gods, this mysterious piece was discovered by Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Contreras at La Venta in 1955. Nothing like it had ever been unearthed.

The exhibition includes another important grouping: a pair of regal, pharaonic-looking male twins, their faces, bodies and headdresses exquisitely carved in andesite, gazing at the jaguar sitting in front of them. It’s the first known image of the so-called hero twins who appear later in Mayan and other Mesoamerican mythology.

“What our show is trying to do is emphasize not so much the Olmec art style,” Berrin says, “but the idea of grouping, trying to put objects together in the way that the Olmec would’ve seen them.”

The show also features objects that have been discovered over the past 15 years and have not been seen in America. They include a huge cache of polished celts, potent wooden busts and jadeite crying babies unearthed at El Manatí and La Merced.

“We want to convey the grandeur and spirit of Olmec culture,” Berrin says. “I hope people will learn something about this very early culture of the Americas that isn’t well known, but is every bit as important as Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek or other ancient cultures throughout the world.”

Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico: Sat.-May 8. M.H. de Young Memorial Museum

Author: Jesse Hamlin | Source: SF Gate [February 13, 2011]



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