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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Teotihuacan: An ancient Mexican city’s remarkable art comes to life at LACMA

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Mural fragment of flowering trees from a compound near the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan.
(LACMA)
Art Critic

I would not have enjoyed living in Teotihuacan, given all the human and animal sacrifice believed necessary to keeping the cosmic wheels of nature and civilization oiled and turning in that ancient Mesoamerican metropolis, just outside modern Mexico City.

More than a dozen years ago, few archaeologists or anthropologists were surprised by the drama unfolding around a discovery inside a previously unknown vault beneath the enclave’s imposing Pyramid of the Moon. The vault contained 10 decapitated bodies, plus the remains of pumas, eagles and wolves. Visions of a bloody mortuary ritual danced in the head.

Judging, however, from the artifacts on abundant display in “City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan,” currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I certainly would have enjoyed looking at the place, rather than living there. Teotihuacanos — the appropriate term for residents of Teotihuacan (Tay-oh-tee-wah-cahn), a 2,000-year-old cosmopolitan metropolis about which we still don’t know a lot — sure had style.

A 2-foot block of dense gray stone (basalt?) is carved into a seated figure of an old man. His weathered head is riven with lines marking sunken cheeks, and his body is nearly collapsed. The head almost rests atop legs folded beneath him, weighted down by the massive brazier balanced on his head like an improbable hat.

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Dubbed the “Old Fire God,” his sacred duty to keep the coals burning is also his daily burden. He’s one of dozens found in courtyards of residential compounds at the site.

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The lid of an incense burner is decorated with molded plaques representing feathers, butterflies and temples.
(LACMA )
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The massive Pyramid of the Sun (foreground) and Pyramid of the Moon are two of the three main temples at Teotihuacan.
(LACMA )

Large, spiral conch shells, probably once home to ancient sea snails and now notched by hand at the apex to form a trumpet, are incised with images of warriors, hunters and the dead — as well as zoomorphic creatures that may well be crocodiles. (A crocodile floating in a river, the bumpy armor on its back like a mountainous island, was likened to the earth floating in the cosmic sea.) Scholars say that stylistic variances among the shells reveal influences from wide swaths of Mesoamerica, indicating the multi-ethnicity of Teotihuacanos: People migrated there from latter-day Oaxaca to the south, Michoacán to the west, Veracruz to the coastal east and even farther afield.

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A slender male torso atop muscular legs, just over 2 feet tall and carved in exquisitely polished greenstone, is unlike anything else among the show’s nearly 200 sculptures, vessels, mural fragments, body adornments and other objects. The arms, head and lower extremities of the figure are missing, but the elegant finesse with which the torso has been carved speaks of an amply refined aesthetic sense. The exhibition’s excellent catalog pegs the sculpture’s matchless elegance as “iconoclastic.”

At the other end of the spectrum is a cartoonishly ferocious ceramic duckling. The vessel, nicknamed el pato loco (the crazy duck), is just as unique as the greenstone figure in its own endearing way. Squat, plump and with jagged rows of red-painted feathers fanned out atop its head — they crown the eyes with a permanent look of surprise — the avian effigy is lavishly adorned with small seashells. Shells were sometimes used as a kind of currency, so maybe this oddity had something to do with shell-traders.

The exhibition was organized by Matthew H. Robb, former curator at San Francisco’s De Young Museum, where it had its debut in September. Robb, now chief curator at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, is a leading researcher on the mysteries of Teotihuacan. He laid out the show along the lines of the ancient city’s gridded plan, grouping objects according to the temples and neighborhoods in which they were found or to which they show a stylistic or other affinity.

Who founded the place circa 100 BC is not exactly known, nor is the cause of its collapse around six or seven centuries later. When the Aztecs arrived at the vast ruin in the 14th century, they were impressed enough to name the place “the city where the gods were created” — Teotihuacan.

A miles-long Street of the Dead runs slightly off a north-south axis through a valley about 25 miles northwest of Mexico City. Three major temples are featured along this civic spine.

To the right at the southern end is the small Feathered Serpent Pyramid, originally sporting undulating serpent-sculptures from top to bottom. (Some of them still exist.) Roughly two-thirds of the way up the street and also on the right is the massive Sun Pyramid, taller than an 18-story building. Finally, in the center at the end of the broad avenue is the Moon Pyramid, 140 feet tall and its contour based on the profile of Cerro Gordo — “fat hill” — the mountain behind it in the distance.

Unlike Egypt’s pyramids, Teotihuacan’s were not funerary — although tunnel-burials beneath them did take place. They were instead temples for ritual events, including human and animal sacrifices, with platforms and palatial buildings sometimes constructed around them.

More than 100,000 people lived there in multifamily housing in hundreds of clustered villages. Those residences apparently represented differing social standings and ethnic enclaves.

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Incised shells were notched at the tip to function as trumpets.
(LACMA )
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An obsidian knife-blade probably once protruded from the nose of this death deity.
(Archivo Digital de la Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología / INAH-CANON )
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A ritual military figure, left, and a mosaic jaguar date from the collapse of the city in the 6th century.
(LACMA )

The exhibition devotes its principal sections to artifacts found at each of the three big temples, with smaller sections for works unearthed in residential and administrative compounds along the Street of the Dead and at the civic periphery. The layout is effective in clarifying Teotihuacan’s tangled complexities.

The city looked very different from the way it does today, not least because most of the lesser structures have long since disappeared. But, also significant, color is suppressed in gray stone sculptures that were originally covered in white stucco and then brightly painted, or in tan ceramic vessels once whitewashed and decorated. Among the show’s most beautiful items are mural fragments on fields of oxblood red showing vibrant flowering trees and serpents from whose mouths multicolored water flows.

Rather than illusion, these artists dealt in imagination, where time and space do not conform to mundane, worldly expectation. Whether paintings, sculptures or ceramics, the art of Teotihuacan can be stylistically described as almost uniformly frontal, linear, flat or shallow in spatial design and bilaterally symmetrical.

Often, profuse organic patterning can be dense. (Imagine soft smoke emanating from elaborate, especially fine lids on incense burners, their serpentine and interlocked decorations like marvelous headdresses.) Yet even if we cannot read much of the specific symbolism today, a common organizational sense is in evidence among these varied works.

It speaks of cosmic order — which helps when you are trying to corral 100,000 diverse people from all over Mesoamerica into a workable metropolis.

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So, apparently, does fear.

Take an arresting, 4-foot-tall anthropomorphic figure carved from calcite marble, which stands in a stiff, inflexible pose. An oversize head planted on a stubby neck seems to grow straight from a thick torso. The mouth, deeply carved and creating a frowning black gash of shadow, is agape as if speaking (or maybe barking) a command. He’s like a power deity as Saturday night bouncer.

Riven with cracks, smudged with burn marks and mutilated with chisels, the sculpture was at some point smashed to bits and, after discovery in 2002, painstakingly put back together. According to the catalog, the figure is likely related to a wartime victory ritual in which a high-ranking military captive was stripped, tied to a scaffold and shot to death with arrows. An effigy of brutal terror, he’s hard to forget — and very worth remembering.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Through July 15; closed Wednesdays

Information: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org

christopher.knight@latimes.com

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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