November 09, 2010

Olmec exhibit at LACMA

I went to see this exhibit Tuesday:

Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico
Resnick Pavilion
October 2, 2010–January 9, 2011
Olmec civilization, which began sometime around 1400 BC, was centered in the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Olmec architects and artists produced the earliest monumental structures and sculptures in Mexico, including enormous basalt portrait heads of their rulers. The colossal sculptures in the exhibition weigh between 7 and 10 tons each.

The exhibition also includes small-scale jadeite objects that embody the symbolism of sacred and secular authority among the Olmec. Olmec artists were unsurpassed in their ability to work with this extremely hard stone, using elementary tools like chert, water and sand.
Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico at LACMA Resnick Pavilion

By Scott NorrisOlmec: Masterworks of Ancient Mexico will be the first major review of Olmec art in the US in over 15 years, and the first ever on the West Coast. It draws on objects from the Mexican national collection plus pieces on loan from over two dozen additional museums.

The Olmecs pre-dated the rise of Mayan and Aztec civilizations, and began developing highly sophisticated works of art as early as 1500 BC. Olmec art is striking and distinctive, with some works viewed as among the most beautiful in all of ancient America.

The Olmecs are particularly known for the creation of giant stone heads. Seventeen of the monumental heads have been discovered, with the largest weighing up to 24 tons. Carved from single blocks of basalt, the massive works are thought to depict helmeted Olmec rulers. In addition to at least two of the heads, the exhibition will include over 100 objects from large, naturalistic sculptures to finely wrought jade figurines.
Art review:  Three inaugural shows at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion

By Christopher KnightThe majestic show is "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," which occupies the central space in the first show of its kind ever on the West Coast. The Olmec civilization, flourishing circa 1800-400 BC along Mexico's Gulf Coast in the vicinity of modern Veracruz, is the oldest in the Americas to have produced monumental art.And:The colossal head at the entry is at once fearsome and mesmerizing, its stare an epic gaze across time. The volcanic stone sculpture gets its power from the individuality of portraiture, which implies the fragility and temporal passage of human life, fused with the geological "eternity" of Earth.And:LACMA curator Virginia Fields and her international colleagues loosely divided the show into three sections--one introductory, one focused on Olmec nature-imagery and one on the major artistic production centers. The pavilion's open plan makes it hard to follow the exhibition narrative, but the abundance of natural light serves this work well.For my pix of this exhibit, see:

Olmec exhibit at LACMA--November 9, 2010

Comment:  This was a good exhibit, if not a great one. I probably wouldn't recommend it unless you're a fan of Mesoamerican art and culture. Or unless you can go on the monthly free-admission day, as I did.

I agree with Knight's comments about the organization. I didn't realize there was some organization. The texts on the plaques were too academic so I mostly skipped them.

I would've liked to see more storytelling, even some speculation, about the objects. Find ways to bring them to life, people. Use paintings, photos, videos, dioramas, or mannequins to give us some context.

Some takeaways from the exhibit:

  • The Olmec developed an advanced civilization from 1200 to 600 BC. The early date is contemporary with the Greek Myceneans and the Trojan War. The whole civilization predates Classical Greece by centuries.

  • Ethnically the Olmec appear to be all over the map. Many of the smaller figures look Asian. So do the jaguars, which resemble Chinese lions. But the colossal heads have Negroid features and several rules appear to be wearing Egyptian headdresses. It makes you wonder if there's something to the pre-Columbian contact theories.

  • For a previous Mesoamerican exhibit, see Aztec Pantheon at Getty Villa. For more on the Olmec, see Olmec Writing in National Treasure 2.

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