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MIV SCHAAF

Art From a Confident Culture : 'The Maya Exhibit Just Seemed Like a Show One Ought to See. . .'

October 13, 1985|MIV SCHAAF

The vases were all perfectly cylindrical, with straight sides and not the least flaring at the top or pinching in at the waist or base--none of the curvaceous flowing of Grecian vases that we're used to.

I don't like vases, but I liked these; they seemed to be the first ones I had ever spent more than a minute looking at. The shapes were straightforward as bamboo, and so were the designs painted on them. No delicate little traceries, no carefully decorated borders; the designs were bold and sure, done with an almost splashy confidence. Done with humor, with the immediate, unhesitating brush swing of someone who knows what he's doing and enjoys it, has enjoyed it for years. They reminded me of Chinese ink-wash pictures, upon which each stroke is done in a split second, almost carelessly, but with a result that only years of practice and study could bring about.

So I looked at the vases and smiled and thought that they were done with joy by masters and that I don't have to feel apologetic or ignorant anymore because I cannot relate to the tight, neat, carefully controlled designs of the Grecian style.

I did not expect to become particularly enthusiastic about "Treasures of an Ancient Civilization," the Maya exhibit currently at the Natural History Museum; it just seemed like something one ought to see. It is something one ought to see, and it's exciting. The power of some of the pieces is almost frightening. The jaguars, although stylized, remain fierce; the faces, with high-bridged noses and long jawlines, have the force of living personalities, whether carved in a massive granite or on small jade ornaments. Most have such a direct expression of everyday movement--dancing, smoking, laughing--that you smile in return as though you were there with them. There is not the standoffish, truly classic, we-must-appreciate-this-art feeling you might adopt when you're looking at European art.

It seemed to me that the people who made those objects must have come from such a proud, educated culture that they felt no need to put on a show, to be "artistic," to impress others. And the culture they came from is astounding. The Mayans used an efficient numbering system of dots (representing ones) and bars (representing fives) and were one of only three civilizations in history to have invented the zero--the others having been the Babylonians and the Hindus--a major intellectual achievement.

In astronomy, the Mayans predicted eclipses, calculated the revolution of Venus at 584 days (today's computerized science puts it at 583.92 days) and the length of a year at 365.242 days (today refined to 365.2422).

The hieroglyphic Mayan language, which was started in 2000 BC, is still baffling scholars. There are 800 hieroglyphic symbols, and every glyph has variable affixes. That means there can be prefixes (above or to the left of the glyph), postfixes (below or to the right of the glyph) or infixes (incorporated in the glyph itself). All this reminded me of the British Columbian Indian tribe that had an equally complicated language--one in which words changed according to whether you were speaking directly to someone or including their ghost in the conversation.

I was also enchanted to read about "self-taught, flamboyant" Desire Charnay, who, while other, more-traditionally educated archeologists jeered, forged off on expeditions to Mexico in the 1850s and '60s, sponsored by French tobacco tycoon Paul Lorillard. Charnay discovered the only application of the wheel ever found in ancient America, on children's toys, and rather presumptuously renamed Yaxchilan, a Mexican city on the Usamacinta River, Lorillard Town.

This is a big show, but you don't want to rush. Here are ear flares, like large earrings carved from smooth, shimmery jade. And here--but the museum is closing, and the guards hurry everyone out. "I was just getting used to the Mayan sense of beauty," my daughter said. "It's different from the Greek, which is where we get our Western sense." I was thinking the same thing, and I was thinking about how ridiculous it is to close a museum at 6 p.m. on a Saturday instead of letting families have a grand Saturday night out.

Better go before the exhibit closes Nov. 10.

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