Can Art Ever Be Innocent?

Beautiful is complicated. Gorgeous sunset skies can be a product of atmospheric pollution. Blizzards of the kind that battered Buffalo were visual poetry to Monet. And that jewel-like magenta-winged bug I so admired in the garden last fall? Turns out to be a herbicidal terrorist.

As Monet’s snowstorms suggest, the idea, and ideal, of beauty in art comes with its own drawbacks. The majestic Elgin Marbles, emblems of democracy, crowned a Greek temple built by a slave-owning culture. Much of the Tudor luxe that recently delighted crowds at the Metropolitan Museum was created to make a ruthless colonial power-in-the-bud look fabulous.

On a stroll through the Met’s permanent collection galleries such complexities are always hard to ignore. They’re built into the global art encountered on all sides. And they percolate through the fantastically beautiful exhibition called “Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art.”

Just to have this show is a gift. We haven’t seen a Mesoamerican survey on this scale — more than 100 objects — for years. And it does valuable double duty. It showcases the museum’s pre-Columbian holdings, otherwise off-view during the renovation of the Michael C. Rockefeller wing. And it extends and deepens perspectives on Maya art through the addition of stellar loans from other institutions in the United States, Central America and Europe.

In this limestone throne back from the Usumacinta River area (Guatemala or Mexico, 600–909 A.D.), a bearded lord and his companion observe a small supernatural creature seated between them, a messenger from the celestial god Itzamnaaj. Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

The Maya originated as a civilization around 1500 B.C. in an area covering all or parts of present-day Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. They developed a rigidly vertical class-based society living in rivalrous city-states and led by rulers who sought guidance from, and closely identified with, a pantheon of nature-based deities.

Culturally, the Maya invented a hieroglyphic writing system, still not fully deciphered. And in their elite art — which is the art that survives — they came up with distinctive architectural and graphic styles, which they put to both secular and religious use during the so-called Classic period (250-900 A.D.) on which the show focuses.

Three objects that introduce the exhibition, all dating from around the 8th century A.D., suggest the formal and expressive range of what lies ahead. One is a ceramic box, painted with a wraparound narrative depicting a supernatural summit chaired by a cigar-smoking, feline-eared deity-in-chief.

A ceramic squared box with a wraparound narrative by Lo’ Took’ Akan (?) Xok, a Maya artist, name still tentative, active 8th century). Naranjo or vicinity, northern Petén, Guatemala, 755–80 A.D.Credit…Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Anonymous gift

A text, spelled out in the equivalent of bubble-graffiti characters, suggests that the scene is a kind of Creation Day congress, with various gods convened to cook up a brand-new world. With features combining human, animal and vegetal, they’re a weird-looking cohort. An encounter with any of them on a dark night might trigger your fight-or-flight reflex. But seen here, at comic-strip scale, they radiate imaginative esprit, thanks to the wonderful linear style — shivery and filigree-fine — of an 8th century artist who signed his name.

The two other introductory items are large, columnar clay sculptures. Unearthly figures appear on them too, but as disembodied faces shaped in high relief. One has the look of a grinning death’s head. The other scowls, bug-eyed and open-jawed, as if caught in mid-shout. Both objects were designed as giant incense holders which may have been meant to serve as fragrant perches for visitations from the fearsome gods portrayed.

Incense burner. Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, 7th–8th century, center, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

The Maya concept of the universe was built on dualities found in nature, and the show, a collaboration between the Met and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, takes the opposing states of Night and Day as one of its themes. Both temporal phases are fraught with paradox. As depicted in paintings and sculptures, the Maya sun god, giver of life, is no Apollo. He’s a sickly hero beset by violently light-averse enemies. He has to fight hard just to make it above the horizon every day.

The nocturnal forces he’s up against comprise some of this art’s most hellish-looking beings: reptilian carnivores, underworld ghouls. At the same time, while darkness is the domain of death, it’s also a realm of sensuality and fertility. Tender images speak to this: a painting of the moon goddess, nude, on a cylinder vessel; an earthenware relief of a woman cradling a baby bear like a child; a terra-cotta figurine of another women, a young beauty in a robin’s-egg robe, fielding the advances of a geriatric suitor.

A visitor looks at Cylinder vessel with Moon Goddess and other celestial beings, 600-900 A.D., and Cylinder vessel, 7th–8th century.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
Figurine, embracing couple, 700–900, Mexico.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

In a gallery devoted to him, the god of rain, Chahk, embodies contradictory forces, too: Like sunlight, he vivifies the world, though too little or too much of him can spell disaster in the form of drought or floods. Art catches his bipolar character. As incised on an 8th century limestone plaque from Mexico, he’s an arabesque tangle of swelling clouds and aqueous swirls. He looks as softly enlivening as a summer downpour sounds and feels. Yet in a rough-cut monumental stone figure from a century later, he makes a very different effect: he’s a loin-clothed, sunken-cheeked giant wielding an earth-clearing ax.

If many Maya gods look grotesque, even monstrous, at least one, the Maize God, does not. Patron of agriculture, sustainer of harvests, he’s a dreamboat, as buff as Adonis, as self-possessed as a Buddha. Check him out in a bust-length, life-size carving that seems to catch him poised in meditative liftoff. And seek him further in a small, hand-holdable ceramic sculpture which shows him emerging, arms crossed like a dancer taking a bow, from the center of a maize blossom.

Visitors look at “Maize God,” 715.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

There are several such floral sculptures in the show, some of which incorporate an audio function: they were designed as whistles, as if to give tiny stamen-like figures of deities and ancestors breath and a voice. Indeed, most Maya religious art seems to have been conceived as both physically and spiritually interactive. Contemporary Maya religious practice suggests that giant censers like those in the show were treated as living beings, to be fed, clothed, coddled and placated. Ancient written accounts tell of Maya kings theatrically impersonating deities in an effort to assume their own godlike control over life and death.

Deity emerging from a flower, 600–900.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
Whistle with the Maize God emerging from a flower, Mexico, Late Classic period (600–900).Credit…The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the show’s final section, “Rulers and Patrons,” we’re squarely in the world of enactments in which the secular and the sacred, beauty and brutality, terrestrial and celestial rule are surreally entangled. An element of violence is undisguised. Hallucinatory scenes painted on vessels — of a man decapitating himself, of a jaguar set on fire — represent punishing acts of sorcery believed to have been available to rulers who, if not technically deities themselves, were in intimate, operative communion with the divine.

One such potentate, the 8th century Maya king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, appears on a magnificent limestone relief, Stela 51 (731 A.D.), on loan from the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. He shares a name with the god of lightning (K’awiil) and his regal vestments and props indicate further divine affiliations. But in purely earthly terms, the proof of his power is embodied in the figure of a prone man who lies, like a footstool, under his feet.

Left, Stela 51 from Calakmul, Mexico, depicts King Yuknoom Took’ K’awaii. Center, “The Dance of the Macaws in Santa Cruz Verapaz,” shows how the ancient Maya culture that thrived in pre-Hispanic times still resonates in the country’s highlands, its rituals incorporated into Christian ceremonies. Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Similar images appear repeatedly in Maya elite political and religious art, which is what the art at the Met is. They are, among other things, superbly imagined advertisements for power through intimidation. And for Maya, as for their Aztec contemporaries, that intimidation sometimes took the form of human sacrifice: ritualistic, dominion-fortifying public torture and killing, usually of political prisoners.

The Met show — organized by Joanne Pillsbury and Laura Filloy Nadal of the Met and Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos of Yale University, and Jennifer Casler Price of the Kimbell — takes only muted note of this reality. Yet it may be the most widely remarked feature of these ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. It is certainly the one that, once known, brings to the fore the dark and aggressive side of much surviving ancient Maya art, embodied in the grotesques censers, the hulking rain god, the man- trampling monarch. And that aggression complicates perceptions of this art’s astonishing formal and imaginative beauties, and of beauty itself as a saving grace.

Stela 51, a stone portrait of the Calakmul king Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who erected the monument in Calakmul, Mexico. The proof of his power is embodied in the figure of a prone man under his feet. “And that aggression complicates perceptions of this art’s astonishing formal and imaginative beauties, and of beauty itself as a saving grace,” writes Holland Cotter.Credit…Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City

In reality, of course, no culture, past or present was, or is, anything like innocent, and certainly not our own. Human sacrifice in the interest of gaining and maintaining elite power? How else could you describe American slavery, or the United States wars in Vietnam and Iraq, or our continuing ritual practice of capital punishment? As an expression and reflection of culture, art too is the opposite of innocent, and the idea of beauty attached to it is always complicated for that reason, a generator of questions as much as a giver of answers. Both echo through this totally riveting show, and resound through all the Met galleries beyond.

The Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art

Through April 2, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., (212) 535-7710; The exhibition travels to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, May 7-Sept. 3.

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