Bloody brilliant: Aztecs at the Royal Academy

15 November, 2002
ART: Bloody brilliant
Aztecs at the Royal Academy

As lost civilisations go, the Aztecs have a serious PR problem. It isn’t just that they kept dogs for meat, or that they called their gods by unwieldy names like Huitzilopochtli and Xiuhtecuhtli and Chalchiuhtlicue. Those things happen. But they failed to provide any images of themselves doing the sort of things that we like to think everyone does. There are no tender Aztec mother-and-child scenes, no love poetry, no injunctions to charity or kindness towards the weak or the unfortunate. In fact, although the Aztecs provided state support for the disabled, such support lasted only up to the moment of the next solar eclipse – at which point the disabled were amongst the first to be sacrificed and then stewed up with peppers and tomatoes and eaten by their former patrons.

But then human sacrifice was a major feature of Aztec civilisation. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 20,000 people were sacrificed by the Aztecs every year — something like one per cent of the population — while less conservative accounts not only put the number much higher, but claim that cannibalism added vital protein to the otherwise rather starchy diets of the Aztec elites. Thus if you accept the conventional wisdom that eating people is wrong — and ERO has always retained a soft spot in its black and cankered heart for conventional wisdom — then this will almost certainly colour your perception of the strange, civilised, horrific people whose empire bestrode much of Mesoamerica at the dawn of the sixteenth century. It’s interesting, then, that the Royal Academy’s magnificent new exhibition, Aztecs, addresses the human sacrifice issue not by denying that it happened, but by glossing over the idea that it might be in any way problematic, or that it should do anything other than add a delightful shiver or two to our encounter with Aztec visual culture.

Aztecs, it must be said, is an extraordinary, overwhelming, more than slightly alarming and wholly unmissable show. It is perhaps the most important thing that has happened at the Royal Academy for years. Loans have flooded in from everywhere, not least from Mexico itself, making this a fuller account of Aztec culture than most of us ever would have expected to see on this side of the Atlantic. Aztecs was opened by the President of Mexico and boasts a catalogue introduction from our own Prime Minister and essays by many of the great and the good of this particular scholarly field. It’s high level high culture at its most incontrovertible. Yet at no point have worthy educational ends, let alone diplomatic gentilesse, been encouraged to eclipse either these objects’ aesthetic force, or their terrible charisma. It’s like Sensation but with more scholarly credibility, more shock value and more things that make one feel genuinely sick. What could be better, with Christmas on the way? This is, in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. In fact I’d go further, and say that anyone with any interest in history, anthropology or visual art who fails to see it is making a real and regrettable mistake.

On one level, this is history as pure theatre. Coming out of Aztecs, walking home through a rain-washed and monochrome Piccadilly, it was the sheer drama of presentation that stuck in the mind. Ivor Heal designed Aztecs and he deserves credit for providing the sort of spectacular visual impact not always associated with archaeological exhibitions. Of course the Royal Academy started off with an advantage. There’s inevitably a bit of a frisson where — excuse the very non-pc language for a moment — apparently ‘primitive’ art invades the classicised idioms and civilising spaces of nineteenth-century high culture. The brutal bulkiness of basalt carvings gets a boost from the gilt-edged coffered ceiling soaring high above it — just as a certain sort of trashy, demotic contemporary art does, as we’ve recently seen in those exact spaces. But the design here is magnificent. Inspired lighting effects, an imaginative placement of artefacts and large chip-board additions to existing doors have transformed the main galleries of the RA into a succession of darkish, mysterious spaces punctuated with amazing sights, and culminating in a space that alludes directly to the temple architecture of the vanished Tenochtitlán, which the Aztecs believed was the literal centre of the universe.

So, as I’ve said, what will stick with the viewer is less a series of discrete objects or parcels of information, than an overall experience: an impression of sharply-incised carving picked out by dramatic lighting, of exotic materials and terrifying imagery. This is the Other, exhibiting all the repulsiveness and magnetism we are told we should no longer experience in the presence of alien cultures. This is a vision of archaeology that owes as much to old Curse of the Mummy films as it does to learned journals with long footnotes. And as is often the case with Romanticism, the fact that it’s a guilty pleasure probably only sweetens the experience. Despite, or perhaps because of its rather alarming subject matter, it deserves the blockbuster audiences it will almost certainly attract over Christmas. For a wet, grey London on the brink of war and mildly twitchy about a whole host of things, this is precisely the sort of high-quality escapism we need.

But to say that there’s something dreamlike — or nightmarish — about Aztecs shouldn’t detract from its profundity. It would be hard to leave this exhibition without having learned something about the history of the Americas and about the nature of contact between hitherto distinct cultures. In these days of low expectations regarding the gallery-going public, the RA deserves a huge amount of credit for the grown-up, sane, informative nature of the explanatory material here. It has been a long time since I have seen interpretive panels that were so long, so unpretentiously ambitious or so genuinely interesting. The catalogue, by the same token, is a minor marvel in its own right. Weighty, informative, intelligently-organised and full of ravishly attractive photographs, it is well worth the reasonable price the RA is charging for it. And here’s a strange fact — in both the exhibition and the catalogue, the account of the centrality of religion in Aztec life and culture is such that even ERO cannot think of anything remotely critical to say about this. No, the drama here has not come at the price of patronising visitors. Other curators, not just in London either, might well wish to take note.

So what is there to learn about the enigmatic people who created the wealth of material on show in Aztecs? A great deal, as it happens. Perhaps the most salient fact about the Aztec empire is how young it was when Cortez first encountered it. Less than two centuries separate the year 1325, when this wandering tribe founded their capital at Tenochtitlan (the site of the present-day Mexico City) from their defeat at the hands of the Spanish in 1521. Another surprising fact is the extent to which the Aztecs looked back to previous civilisations for inspiration and legitimacy. As a group of lacklustre nomads with no particular visual culture of their own, they swiftly appropriated the remains of older civilisations such as the Olmecs (c. 1200-100 BC) and the Toltecs (c. 900-1200), or borrowed from contemporaries such as the Mayas. The great ruined city of Teotihuacan (AD 100-750) exerted a particular fascination. The Aztecs believed that the city had once been home to Quetzalcoatl, the legendary god-king of the Toltecs, before he had vanished beyond the sea. It is strange to reflect that more time separated the first Aztecs from the last days of Teotihuacan — nearly 600 years — than presently divides their last days from our own times.

This openness towards cultural synthesis explains a great deal in Aztecs. The Aztecs — actually, ‘Mexica’ seems to be the more acceptable term for these people, but I’ll avoid it here to spare everyone’s confusion — were fascinated by the ruins of the past. They excavated old cities. They treasured the artefacts they found, even when these were fragmentary, and — the highest praise possible — sacrificed them to their gods. When real ancient material was not available, they created facsimiles instead. This willingness to simulate an antique style, based on a belief that such a style somehow connected more directly with divine realities, is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever learned about a past civilisation. It also explains a great deal about their ‘contact’, as the exhibition puts it, with the Spanish conquistadors. When the Spaniards arrived, the Aztecs admired their curious beards, their horses and firearms, and greeted them as the vanished Quetzalcoatl and his retinue. Later they embraced the outward forms of the conquering people’s religion and created handsome liturgical objects in the new idiom. There’s a sense that what happened had less to do with conquest, than with yet another wave of syncretic assimilation. As late as the nineteenth century, good church-going Amerindians kept in their houses terra-cotta or wooden figures of Aztec minor deities, apparently with a degree of official sanction.

Aztecs has been supported both by the Mexican government, its tourist board and its major petrochemical company, Pemex. Perhaps this accounts to a large extent for the relatively relaxed view that the exhibition seems to take regarding the ‘conquest’ of Mexico by the Spanish. Perhaps the idea of attacking a situation in which a small, light-skinned, wealthy Spanish-speaking elite governs a large, poor, creole or Amerindian majority does not, for some reason, appeal? Still, the result is a sane, balanced account of the way in which waves of culture lap over one another, each leaving behind on the beach its own little aggregation of offerings before withdrawing once again. This is why we have Aztecs modifying Olmec masks before sacrificing them to Tolem deities, and their grandchildren making magnificent hummingbird-feather mitres for Catholic clergy. That Aztecs skims over this with self-confident brevity can only be a good sign. The nation that has already given the world Diego Rivera, let alone his over-rated consort, has a lot more to add when it comes to the visual arts.

As for Aztec society, it combines the disconcerting and the familiar in equal measure. The empire’s capital, Tenochtitlan, had an estimated population of 250,000 — enormous by pre-modern standards — and was compared by the first Spaniards who encountered it with Venice. Currency consisted of cacao beans or white cotton cloaks. Feathers were considered as valuable as gold. The only domesticated animals were turkeys and dogs. There were no draught animals. The Aztecs famously did not use wheeled vehicles or pulleys. Aztec society was based on a caste system, and was theocratic and militaristic to an almost unimaginable extent. The bulk of the population were serfs or slaves, presided over by an hereditary elite and a growing mercantile and artisan class. Aztec poetry was poignant and sometimes remarkably vivid, but more often than not, dealt with the shortness of life and the loneliness of the afterlife. And the visual record left by the Aztecs relates almost exclusively to religion, sacrifice and death.

It is easy to caricature this grimness of tone. Women who died in childbirth — personified as Cihuateotl — were regarded as the equivalent of warriors who died in battle. At their death they were believed to become living spectres, capturing the souls of the unborn and joining the sun from its zenith to its setting in the west. The example in Aztecs is shown wearing a garland of sculls and a necklace of severed hands, ‘the tangled hair of a corpse’, emaciated and raising her claw-like hands in a gesture of aggression. So much for all the gentle ‘Virgin and Child’ scenes that have, since Byzantine times, occupied so much of Western art! There is a whole room in Aztecs devoted to gods of death, including the alarming Xipe Totec, dressed in his fitted suit of flayed human skin – not that the room devoted to gods of life looks that much more cheerful. But the single most distressing thing in this exhibition must surely be item 97, ‘container for flayed human skin’. Not only is it a strange, sickly, pinky-yellow colour, but it is covered with lumps of fired clay, apparently designed to resemble blobs of subcutaneous fat. Devotees of Xipe Totec apparently wore the skins of sacrificed humans for twenty days over their own faces and bodies, in order to personify their god, before storing them in jars like this one and storing them in a chamber beneath their temple. Neither Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers nor Bruce Nauman have ever approached the sheer nausea-value of this fact, which makes mid-country Liberia of the 1980s sound a wholesome and agreeable place.

But horror like this would not be interesting were it not shot through with a great deal of beauty and skill. The Aztecs were capable of working stone with immense skill and fluidity, they could shape terra cotta with delicacy, and their goldworking techniques amazed even Albrecht Dürer. It is hard to reconstruct that moment of inter-cultural contact now, but it’s important to remember that those who lived through it saw it more as a meeting of equals than as an encounter between a ‘civilised’ renaissance culture and a ‘primitive’ peripheral one. Looking at Aztec artefacts, this makes sense. There’s a huge granite carving of a rattlesnake, marvellously naturalistic, where even the underside is shaped to resemble the reptile sinuous curves. There’s a remarkable feathered serpent representing Quetzalcoatl, again a huge thing rendered out of a single block of reddish stone, mysterious and wholly convincing. There is a life-sized ‘Eagle Man’ made out of fired clay, presumably unimaginably fragile yet extremely menacing. There are the intricate illustrated books, the so-called codices, which were collected by Archbishop Laud, amongst others, and which tell us so much about Aztec life and history. And there is a terrible life-sized fired-clay model of Mictlantecuhtli, half-flayed, his engorged liver hanging down from his ribcage, placed on a plinth in the exhibition so that he appears to be reaching down towards the viewer in some ghastly simulacrum of mute greeting, his bony face convulsed in a grin. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but if there had not been a gallery full of people, I would not have lasted two minutes in those rooms before running away.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining why some of the responses to this exhibition have been so silly. Yes, to twenty-first century people like us, such images appear horrifying, and the little we know about the Aztecs does little to reassure us. Yet at the same time, it is witless to assert, as one critic has recently done, that these things have ‘a visceral impact, a power which operates on some atavistic level’ and hence can communicate directly with us, bypassing the need for in-depth knowledge. Equally silly is the claim by another critic that ‘we can easily imagine’ the ‘terror’ of a sacrificial victim – before admitting that the Aztecs, with their lack of ‘forgiveness, humility and hope’, leave him ‘cold’.

If, however, we take the time to move beyond pleasurable shocks and shivers towards a moment of vaguely sane anthropological reflection — because, to use another out-of-fashion word, this is less an art exhibition than an ‘ethnographic’ one — then we should really be able to admit, honestly if a bit sadly, that we can never actually know how these images looked to the Aztecs themselves. Aztec cosmology was complex and intricate; Aztec theology was predicated on a system of dualities and overlapping realities; when Aztec religious thought was described by the Spanish — almost invariably, Catholic lay brethren — it was filtered through a more or less inevitable series of misunderstandings, implicit critiques and outright disagreement. And this applies to most aspects of Aztec culture, even the most apparently sinister. As a Christian, I am disgusted by the way in which human sacrifice disregards the sanctity of human life, and am delighted that the Spanish converted the Aztecs to Christianity. But this does not provide grounds for the assumption that Aztecs saw human sacrifice as negative, terrible or even terrifying. There is, alternatively, a great deal of evidence that for them, human sacrifice was integrally connected with themes of rebirth, regeneration and even hope. And given that Christians have as their ultimately consoling and life-affirming image the figure of a wounded and bleeding man being tortured to death on a cross, we should perhaps avoid leaping to any conclusions about how the objects on show at the Royal Academy were regarded by their creators. Whatever we feel about these objects, we bring our own feelings with us. They are neither inherent in the objects themselves, nor are they elicited from us by the objects through some ‘atavistic’ ‘power’.

None of this, I suppose I ought to emphasise, means that we cannot or should not attempt to draw as close as we can to the Aztec’s mental world, in the hope of understanding as much of it as possible. From their poetry — transcribed by Spanish sources and written in a language still spoken by many Amerindians today — it is clear that Aztecs knew laughter, friendship, sexual attraction, affection for children and parents, and pleasure in everything from the colours of flowers to the smell of perfume and the taste of chocolate. Trying to assimilate this knowledge with what we see in Aztecs is one of the considerable pleasures of the exhibition. There’s a marvellous fired clay drinking vessel, for instance, in the form of a rabbit, made in about 1500. The rabbit is lying on his back, paws crossed in front of him, looking sweet and rather silly. Apparently the vessel was used in religious festivals devoted to Ome Toechtli, the patron of drunkards, where it was filled with a mildly alcoholic drink laced with trance-inducing drugs. What is one to make of this? Or of a statue of Huehoeteotl, literally ‘old, old god’, depicted with frankly engaging naturalism as an old, old man, wrinkled and snaggle-toothed, smiling at he looks ahead of him? I have no idea, but I think it’s strange how quick some critics have been to assume that the Aztecs’ world was all death, all violence, even — to use a word that has featured in more than one review — all nihilism.

But then I think art critics are easily wrong-footed when confronted with a body of fascinating, powerfully, visually compelling material that was never mean to be art per se. The Aztecs valued the skill, imagination and commitment of their artisans and craftsmen, and described their work appreciatively. But art for art’s sake was a concept as alien to them as it was to the Europeans who encountered them. So the critic is left with two main choices. One, which is looking a bit dated now, is to project anachronistic, formal concerns back upon these objects — not least, the magnificent stone sculpture — as if they were somehow equivalent to work by, say, Rodin or Calder or Paolozzi. Putting these items in an art gallery, abstracted from their ritual context and their intended environment, obviously plays slightly to this reading. The logical alternative is to refuse them status as art, and instead treat them as anthropological or archaeological specimens, in the way that old university ethnographic collections, with their dusty vitrines and faded typescript labels, used to do — and the concomitant risk is an experience that would engage no one but the Mesoamerican specialist.

So by concentrating on drama, the Royal Academy has, in a sense, opted for a third way, bypassing both the aesthetic and historicist options in favour of pure sensation. It’s a reasonable compromise. The sheer grand guignol notoriety of the Aztecs ensures that we don’t forget that the stunning objects here were made for a purpose — hazy though we might be about the nature of that purpose — while the visual impact of the objects is such that they unfailingly fascinate, even at their most disgusting. Of course this, too, has inherent hazards. To return to a point made at the beginning of this review, it is strange how easily violence and cruelty can be transformed into the stuff of pleasantly scary entertainment. Confident sculpture, sophisticated gold-working techniques and an inspired way with hummingbird feathers do not excuse mass murder, any more than politcally correct gestures towards cultural relativism do. Somewhere within the tyranny of tolerant liberalism under which we labour, there is still clearly a bit of a blind spot when it comes to ‘primitive’ cultures. It is hard to believe that a show about, say, the art of Nazi Germany — hopeless though most of that obviously was — would possibly be allowed a similar degree of sinister glamour.

History isn’t the same thing as art. The Aztecs deserve their bad PR. Those reclining chacmool altars really did once support still-beating human hearts; the handsome obsidian blades really did drip with arterial blood; the unseeing eyes of some of these images have looked out over things that few of us could imagine. There are many beautiful things in Aztecs, and many terrible ones, too. The juxaposition of the two is occasionally anything but comfortable, if only because the truth it tells about the world is such an unpleasant one. This, as much as anything else, is what makes Aztecs such a brilliant, surprising and unforgettable experience — more so, certainly, than mere art alone could possible provide.

Aztecs is at the Royal Academy from 16 November 2002 – 11 April 2003. Full price tickets cost £10.
Bunny Smedley, November 15, 2002 07:45 PM

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