Walter Lehmann.

The history of ancient Mexican art; an essay in outline online

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It is incumbent on the history of art to work upon fixed basic principles
applicable to the manifestations of many peoples.

Culture is creative. Civilization is exhausted. The former is productive. The
latter paramountly reproductive. Thus civilization tends both to syncretism and

The creative part of culture is inherent in that which is artistic. The essence
of art raises both the question of generalities and particularities. All art should
be judged, examined and comprehended simultaneously from the point of view of
humanity, as well as of a people and its representative, the creative artist.

No matter the art of which people be examined, it will always be found
on closer investigation of phenomena, either similar or dissimilar, that the path
leads to something common and superior to both: the enigma of art manifestation
per se.

The final approach must be the task of philosophy beyond historical and
ethnographical investigation. The enigma is rooted in the soul.

Indeed, every form of art is the expression of either the individual soul,
or that of a generality. And here we discover a very peculiar reciprocity between
both. The individual artist is able to move the masses. On the other hand the
indistinct sentient life of a nation crystalizes in the artist. Though It is not
necessary that his name be handed down to posterity. Nor is this the case with
folk-songs for instance. Personal art is always imbued with the Impersonal.
For the genius of the artist and that of a people, if united, always finds its
ultimate human expression In creations which, as something etemeJ, outlasts the
mutation of time.

What Is eternal? — The Ideas which are the foundation of all universal
phenomena, and therefore evolve the form problems of art.

Art Is the power to embody ideas In a creative form, and to erect something
permanent, though perishable In Its exterior In the ever-flowing course of time.

A general view of man's multifarious art expression shows. In spite of all
the peculiarities of peoples, that there are certain characteristics which permit
us to speak of art styles, and great periods In the history of art. It Is perhaps a
moot question as to how far it Is permissible to speak here of a history of
development, although an Irrefutable sequence Is recognizable, showing an historical
course In a given movement which we term time.

The History of Ancient Mexican Art.

A succession of styles is observable, both with the individual artist, peoples, and
groups of peoples.

It is important to remark, that pure and applied art, now travelling different
roads throughout nearly the whole of Europe, are, with other peoples, more or
less distinctly connected.

High art in the European sense of the word is the expression of the spiritual
experience of the individual in which the work of art is both created and enjoyed
for its own sake. Applied art is in the same sense of the word pronouncedly
utilitarian. In both cases the aim is that of the embodiment of ideas. For the
Greek "Charioteer", as well as an axe, cu^ both, in their way, embodied ideas.

Style is, so to say, the handwriting of a cultured epoch in which recognizable
or unrecognizable individuals produce works of art. Personal style is the master 9

The transference of art subjects to handicrafts is nearly always styleless,
and a particular evil of our new age of machinery, which, by its highly developed
technical ability facilitates any reproduction and nonsensical transference to the most
varied material.

Style is the peculiar form of a work of art. On the other hand, con\'entionalizing
of forms is the intentional or unintentional artistic changing of nature's forms
and expressions.

All art is in so far impressionistic as it has its origin in exterior impressions;
no one can evade these. The work of art thus created is a connecting-link inserted
in an uninterrupted sequence between the external world and man.

Expressionism however — whether naive or designing — holds that it
can create straight from the soul a work of art devested of any intervening
medium by disregarding all possible exterior impressions. Such a production finally
appears to be in no connection whatsoever with the palpable world. Pure
expressionism might be regarded as the art of metaphysics. As absolute
space is dealt \rith by metaphysics, such a phenomenon, as for instance cubism,
becomes psychologically comprehensible. And, as further, absolute space forms a
synchronic continuity, we can also approach nearer to the intention of modern artists
who attempt to represent a sequence of events confined in space, as may be sometimes
observed in the case of the simple mediaevel legend painters. As however the works
of high creative art, plastic and graphic, are really not time-bound in only retaining
one moment, the amalgamation of time and space in plastic and graphic art in
one and the same work is a characteristic of the primitive, or a voluntary
harking back to the same.

I understand by impressionism a preponderating influence in the artist's work
from without, and by expressionism that from within.

The History of Ancient Mexican Art.

The fundamental form of impressionism is naturalism, for nature was, and
remains, the eternal teacher of mankind. Small wonder then that just the most
primitive drawings, as for instance the ancient Altamira cave paintings, are possessed
of an extraordinary vividness of impression. They are pictures of nature based
upon the most acute power of observation emanatmg from the close connection of
primitive man with nature.

The naive grasping of the essential in vivid momentar>' movements (closely -
akin to caricature) is characteristic. It is clear that we have here, as is the
case with bushmen's and other drawings, a certain psychic mood and form of
human thought reacting to momentary phenomena in nature with complete psychic
devotion. I term, the art of this attitude to the universe (W eltanscliauung) primary
naturalism. Sharply contrasted to this are the restricted and limited patterns
enforced by the technique of plaiting and weavmg at a period when man was possessed
of a developed handicraft. As, ethnologically, the pot developed from the basket,
woven patterns were transferred to ceramic, and were thus changed in variouls
v^^manners. I call this style primary plectogene geometrical.

Since the introduction of plaiting, weaving, and pottery, both styles begin
to influence each other, and in doing so, it is probable that originally different
and distinct cultural spheres reacted mutually on one another through amalgamation,
trade relations, migration and other causes.

It is possible, for instance, in the case of ancient Peruvian art to distinctly * =
recognize the two above-mentioned styles, as well as their mutual exchange of

Plectogene geometrical patterns undergo a secondary naturalistic change on
adoption, as human imagination easily conceives e. g. a square having another little one
within it, to be an eye. This secondary plectogene style is geometncal-

On the other hzmd, naturalistic motives are conventionalized owing to a
i^ more reflective and more recent observation of nature. This is a form of observing
nature, as conceived and reproduced by means of memory, rather than an observation
of what appears actually and at first hand. Associative modifications of the
pattern result. And finally, that mode of viewing the universe, which is pondered
and mythological, creates an art more or less richly vested with symbols and —
^attributes (mostly of the gods). This conventionalized naturalism as met with,
for instance, in ancient Mexico, may be designated as a priestly or hierarchical art. *-

If the secondary naturalistic plectogene patterns are tranferred to ceramic, the
rigid form becomes less rigid, and naturalistic geometncal productions result.

Again, another form of naturalism developing to a conscious return to the
nature of primitive man, is the mature and supermature naturalism of the most
cultured peoples. It alone really knows the emotional landscapes and the spiritualized

The History of Ancient Mexican Art.

portrait. It is rational (one in many) in its classical or classicizing form, irrational
in its romantic form (many in one).

The exhaustion of impressionism leads to expressionism, which, in a way,
is suppressed naturalism, and may perhaps pave the way for a new romanticism.


It is only possible within the disposable space to attempt an essay in outline
of the historj' of Mexican art in view of the difficult archaeological conditions in
this extensive country, and because of the very complicated historical statements made
in old sources which are hardly yet even sifted. In order to obtain a more or less
comprehensive survey of the various styles and time-epochs on Mexican soil, it is
necessar}' to unroll the variegated scroll of the many peoples, among whom the
Mexican-speaking inhabitants of the plateau, and the Maya tribes have left important
historical traditions and monuments.

We shall not go amiss in presuming that the differentiation from Mexican
style amongst the neighbouring peoples is based on special peculiarities which
they were originally possessed of. In doing so we must further consider that the
'Mexicans themselves have passed through various style-periods during which they
influenced the peoples surrounding them.

It seems more stimulating in deahng with this obscure field of art to offer a
comprehensive view of the peoples in question, as well as of their history, rather
than a detailed appreciation of the artistic value of each picture reproduced
m this little volume; pictures of works of art. be it said, that were rigidly
selected, and which certainly speak very distinctly for themselves. Questions of
style dealt with from the view-point of the history of art are now for the first
time chronologically arranged in the appended table. The writer trusts that this
volume, together with its bibliography, may facilitate an introduction into ancient
American art.

General View.

L Non^Mexicans,

The ancient inhabitants of Mexico are divided into two main groups: Mexicans
and Non-Mexicans. The former can be arranged in two strata which are linguisti-
cally, archaeologically, ethnographically, and chronologically quite distinct from one

The History of Ancient Mexican Art.

The Toltecs or Nahuas (Chichimeca Mochanecatoca in Sahagun's Hist, de
la Cosas de la Nueva Espana) form the older stratum of the Mexicans with
dialects distinguished by the T sound in place of the Tl. Their language was, or
is Nahuat. The latter stratum is formed by the Nahuatlacs, to whom the Aztecs
belong. They have the mute Tl sound, and speak Nahuatl.

The Sonoras and the Shoshonees are elder relations of both. As the Mexicans
of both strata immigrated to the Mexican highlands, we shall first deal with the
Non-Mexican peoples. They either also immigrated in archaic times, or are there
so long that they may be regarded as autochthonous. To these belong chiefly
the peoples of the great Otomi group, further the Mixteco-Tzapotecs, Mixe-
Zoques, Huaves and Mayas, as well as the Totonacs and Tarascs (whose linguistic
position remains undecided), although these two latter are also sometimes mentioned
in the migration myths as "arrivals".

Of the northern frontier tribes mention should be made of the representatives
of the great families of Athabascans or Tinne stretching far to the south. The
chief body of these tribes is settled in the north-west of the continent. The best-
known of the southernmost Athabascans are the Apachees between the Rio Grande
del Norte and the Upper Rio Gila. In the remote west — in the south-west of
the United States on the Lower Colorado, on the Rio Gila, and in the neigh-
bouring territories — we find the Yumas as a particular stock, including the
Mohaves, Cocopas, Cochimis (of Lower Cahfornia) besides the Sen on the
Tiburon island and enclaved on part of the opposite Mexican mainland (in the Pima
district). This neglected group is particularly important owing to its relationship on
the one hand with the Chontals of Oaxaca in the south, and on the other
with the Californian Hokan group in the north. Perhaps we may regard the
Californian elements in Mexico as very ancient. It is not possible to discern
clearly now-a-days whether in remote antiquity Californians once held a major
part of Mexico, or whether only single shoots had penetrated into a still older
original population (the Otoml group). But, at any rate it is remarkable that
the residue of the Seris, Cuitlatecs, Tlappanec-Subtiabas (Maribios), Chontals of
Oaxaca, Xincas (south-east Guatemala), who appear as Californians, cling very
closely to the Pacific coast following the direction of California to the south.

Among the tribes of northern Mexico, attention should be drawn to the
Sonoras and Chichemecas. They will be discussed when dealing with the Mexicans,
as well as the Shoshonees, as all three belong to one large group.

There are still to-day numbers of long-settled peoples in central Mexico. The
most important arc the Otomisof the southern Mesa Central and the neighbouring
countries of the Tierra caliente. They include the Otomis -proper, Mazahuas and
Matlatzincas or Toloques (Pirindas in Tarascan) south of them in the neigh-
bourhood of the high valley of Toluca. as well as the Ocuiltecas (MaHnalcas;).

10 The History of Ancient Mexican Art.

Mexicans found their way in various migratory waves into the ranks of these
Otomi p>eoples.

Adjoining these autochthonous peoples, as primordial relations, are the Chocho-
Popolocas now only existing as a fragment of a people south of Puebla, and in
northern Oaxaca. Once they were very extensive and coincide, according to my last
investigations, mainly with the ancient Olmecs (Olmeca-Uixtotin). They were
the inhabitants of the fertile tropical coastal countries of the Gulf shore south
of Verra Cruz. Sahagun, who collected old Mexican traditions up to his old
age from the most learned Indians, emphasizes the fact that the Olmecs were -
not Chichimecas, but Olmeca-Uixtotin-NonouaJcas. This means that they did not
immigrate from the north, but were long-settled barbarians, speaking originally a
foreign language, and being a foreign race, even though later Toltecicized. They
were already influenced at an early period by Toltec culture and language. And
it was just their district — the inner angle of the Gulf — that also remained a centre
of especially high intellectual culture till well into Aztec times, as is above all
proven by the magnificent Codex Borgia originating frQim this district. The extensive
Toltec influence among this "rich" border people is partially explained by the
trade route passing through their territory leading from the central plateau to Tabasco
and the Maya countries. Hence these Olmec tribes were considered in a later era

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Online LibraryWalter LehmannThe history of ancient Mexican art; an essay in outline → online text (page 1 of 4)