Big giant heads are coming to LACMA


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Olmec civilization emerged roughly 3,000 years ago in the eastern lowlands along Mexico’s Gulf Coast in what is today the region of Veracruz and Tabasco. In many ways it provided the foundation for all Mesoamerican art, much the way ancient Greek art did for subsequent European culture.

Still, Olmec society today remains very much a mystery. For example, no one is quite sure what the monumental, 10-ton stone sculptures of helmeted human heads were used for -- although it is certain that anybody who came upon one at a time when the wheel was not yet in use and carving implements were rudimentary would know he was in the jaw-dropping presence of extraordinary power.


So it’s exciting to learn that a major Olmec exhibition will inaugurate the new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion when it opens in October (exact date TBA) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Only two major exhibitions of Olmec art have been seen in the United States -- one at Princeton, the other at the National Gallery -- both in the mid-1990s. Many American museums, including LACMA, have some important Olmec objects on view, but the great survey collections are all in Mexico.

‘Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico’ is one of a half-dozen shows coming this year to museums in L.A. in celebration of the bicentennial of Mexico’s 1810 independence. According to a LACMA spokesman, among them are presentations on muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (Autry National Center of the American West), contemporary devotional painter David Mecalco (UCLA’s Fowler Musuem) and peripatetic Conceptual artist Felipe Ehrenberg (Museum of Latin American Art).

And at the Getty Villa, classical antiquity will be set next to the Aztec empire, with major loans from Mexico City’s incomparable National Museum of Anthropology and Museo del Templo Mayor. A comparison between ancient Mexico and ancient Rome is not as abstruse as it might sound: When the conquest of Mexico was underway in the early 1500s, a major resurgence of Roman antiquity was shaping the European Renaissance. ‘The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire’ will consider parallels between the great civilizations.

-- Christopher Knight

Tournament of Roses’ Mexican bicentennial float. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times