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REVIEW : Quiet Giants

Powerful sculptures from the ancient Olmec culture of Central America burst to life in a visually stunning exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

July 07, 1996|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

WASHINGTON — Like some powerful ancestral guardian summoned to preside over an august ritual occasion, a monumental stone carving of a human head stands protectively at the entrance to the great exhibition of more than 100 Olmec sculptures newly opened here at the National Gallery of Art. Weighing in at about 20,000 pounds, the colossal head is mesmerizing.

The 7-foot-tall sculpture shows only a helmeted head--nothing more, nothing less. No body, no neck, no shoulders are visible. Just a human head.

Smoothly carved from andesite, a fine-grained stone reminiscent of granite, the blocky sphere retains an organic profile that recalls the huge boulder from which it was chiseled. The broad features of the sculpture's serenely confident face, both youthful and mature, are nonetheless specific and distinct. They combine to suggest that this is a portrait of an individual human being, rather than a generic identity like "a warrior" or "a king."

Heavy-lidded eyes turn down slightly at the outer corners, while full, sensuous lips are gently parted beneath a flattened nose. Those parted lips, baring six front teeth, give a feeling of airy buoyancy to the massive lump of stone--a breath of sentient life beneath the forbidding helmet that encases the skull.

The riveting expression on the sculpture's face lies somewhere between a fearsome scowl and a self-satisfied grin. As well it might. For this colossal head is no mere visual representation of power, held by some earthly deity or ruler. Instead, the massive carving is the material embodiment of soul-shaking authority.

Power is this sculpture's artistic modus operandi, from the sheer sense of mastery evident in the carving to the unbelievable physical exertion necessary to move so massive a tonnage of stone into place. Imagine what it must have felt like, as a member of a society that didn't yet have wheels or metal tools, to come upon this head, whose grin also bares teeth. Even today, more than 2,500 years after it was made, the sculpture has the capacity to stop you in your tracks.

Of the many societies that flourished in Mesoamerica in the millenniums before the large-scale arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, the Olmec has always seemed a singular paradox. It is the oldest and most remote culture, dating from as early as 1500 BC to around 300 BC, and scholars today are still engaged in the most fundamental debates as to its nature. Arguments still churn over whether Olmec rightly represents a single, widespread civilization or a cluster of many smaller societies, each with its own quirks and ambiguities.

Yet, the Olmec art and artifacts that have been unearthed from the central and southern coastal gulf regions of Mexico and Central America also might be the most accessible to modern American eyes. Certainly the various sculptures, vessels and ornaments that have survived from Maya, Teotihuacan, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, Aztec and other Mesoamerican cultures have their distinctive charms (I've always been partial to the intricate elegance of Mayan painting and relief carving). But our abstract art has regularly sought the sparest and most minimally articulated visual language to convey ideas of great complexity. The clear, blunt, stripped-down forms common to Olmec sculpture, which may partly be a result of carving without benefit of metal tools, speak with an eloquence that resonates loudly in the 20th century.

However formally accessible Olmec art might seem to Americans today, though, the objects themselves are not often at hand. The great museum collections reside in Mexico--in Puebla, Xalapa, Villahermosa, Mexico City and elsewhere--while continuing excavations of Olmec sites may yet yield startling discoveries. Many U.S. institutions own significant individual objects, from a particularly large jade mask at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to a little kneeling figure of a man transforming into a jaguar, in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A few, such as this city's Dumbarton Oaks, have several; but none claim extensive holdings.

Nor is there any history of great exhibitions of Olmec art. In fact, while general surveys of pre-Columbian work have often included Olmec objects, not until last year did a large American show (at Princeton University) devote itself exclusively to a study of the civilization that in many ways is the foundation for all Mesoamerican art, the way ancient Greek art is for subsequent European culture.

The resulting mix of stunning visual accessibility and relative obscurity conspires to make "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico" a show of unusual importance and excitement. Many of the 122 sculptures feel at once cozily familiar yet startlingly new.

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