A NOTE ON MAYA ESTHETIC[1]

 

Jean Charlot

 

Maya art, although one of the few fully ripe racial expressions the world has known, is still waiting to become a part of our common esthetic heritage.  Maya hieroglyphic writing is a problem of dominant importance, but Maya art, if studied per se, could help us bring to light some additional points about the essence of one of the most thoroughly civilized moments this world has known.

Maya art appears more and more as a purely autochthonous growth.  The much heralded Chinese, Siamese, and other resemblances fade away as the art monuments are better studied and unique characteristics appear.

What makes the correct approach to this art so difficult is mainly the neighboring overgrowth of the more barbarian Mexican esthetics which tends to make us regard Maya art as a curiosity, as some regard Negro or Oceanic art.  On the other hand, there is not enough sentimentalism expressed in Maya plastic to make it popular among the worshippers of the Italian Renaissance; it remains a virgin area to be approached, if one has esthetic flair[2] and a sense of the fitness of respect, much in the way that a learned Occidental studies Chinese ink painting, considering it as something more subtle than the products of our own present-day culture.  The would-be critic has to make an effort toward greater sophistication, and to stand, not as a judge, but as a pupil.

Maya art has many phases.  Its cycle, as is known, starts from archaic forms toward classical purity.  It goes then through the overripe excesses of baroquism toward its natural disappearance with the civilization that had given it growth.  Just before the end, a reaction of purism or neo-archaism gave birth to some of its most exquisite monuments.  From the southern Maya dying, the northern Maya inherited its art, blending it with indigenous and Mexican elements. 

A choice between the enormous wealth of art remains[3] a question of taste, is mostly a personal affair.  Still, the most admired examples of Maya art are of its later rococo style.  Lovers of virtuosity for its own sake shall always go to the decadent dentelles de pierre of Quiriguá and to the latest works of the other sites, all of them unsurpassed in the history of sculpture for their confusing amount of skillfully worked details.  Here bad taste is so insisting, an overripe baroque is treated with such a masterly hand as to force admiration; through decorative spirals, volutes, and curves, men, animals, and monsters intertwine their bodies in a competition with the surrounding tropical exuberance, and pieces of stone are made to look like pieces of jungle. 

If we realize that the confusing wealth of detail on this stonework is but a faint reflection of the now vanished world of which they were a part, and if we let the imagination surround them again with the priests with their god-masks, ceremonial staffs, and heavily embroidered gowns, as they are depicted in the faint bas-reliefs of their now deserted temples, we could not fail to enthuse theatrical managers and “nouveaux riches.”  But Maya art is exceedingly diversified, and we can choose pictures less luxurious but wealthier in human values than these.  

Some stucco reliefs in the south and some paintings in northern Yucatán—grouped for esthetic and not chronological reasons—show human figures clad in simple garments, moving with sophisticated gestures, their slim bodies elongated to the utmost.  Such are the Beau Relief in Palenque and some frescoes in Chacmultún and Chichén Itzá.  A cult of human beauty is apparent here, an attempt on the part of the artist to express his ideals through the choice of expressions and most of all through the equilibrium of proportions of the male body.  Here palpitates a spirituality incompatible with the Greek athletic ideal that gave such a rustic health to both men and gods.  This apparent morbidezza is still the apanage of modern Maya men; watching them we naēvely think that their race is in agony from the weight of its too glorious past, yet this past was forged by similarly languid-looking adolescents.  This group of artworks, in its refined simplicity, stands apart in the whole field of Maya realizations because of that very human quality that makes its meaning so easily accessible to us. 

Between those works and the theatrical complexities of later styles, classical Maya art stands as one of the wealthiest mines of theogonical motifs and abstract forms the world has ever known.  At the earliest dated beginnings of this civilization, which are broadly contemporaneous with Christ, the Maya alphabet already showed forms of purely plastic beauty evolved through prehistoric centuries of use from what had been at one time more natural representations.  A similar process was to invade progressively the field of monumental plastics, for the Mayas have in common with other American Indians a gift for creating abstractions and an urge to use it for religious purposes or sheer plastic delight. 

The simplest, and presumably oldest, Maya forms of human representation (Stela 8, Naranjo) are realistic with a trend toward caricature.  The conception, however, soon widens with the growing ability and ambition of the stoneworker, and the representation loses its naturalistic appearance while a wealth of complicated garments and ceremonial ornaments soon climbs over and covers the human figure, distorting its proportions and reducing it to the role of a mere peg for symbols.  The human face remains visible for a time as the last natural spot among this wealth of abstractions, then disappears in its turn under a fantastic mask, thus depriving us, the modern onlookers, of even this refuge for our too strictly emotional appreciation of art (Stelae at Copán; see diagrams established by Dr. Spinden). 

This decreasingly important place given the human effigy proves that the Indian mind does not need, like that of the classical Greek, to resort to anthropomorphy to embody its gods.  The archeologically so-called grotesque figures and symbols are in fact best able to depict the attributes of the divinity without belittling their mysteries by forcing them into sharp delineations.

Thus the typical Maya monolith in its mature form chooses for subject matter an amount of dogmatic figurations.  Once an accumulator for religious energies, it is now, with its meaning mainly lost, still a foyer of plastic ardor.  The contemplation and enjoyment of these sculptures so alive with beauty is made greater and more mysterious for the artist by their very manner of being elusive, allusions to natural forms instead of plain descriptions.  But for the scientists, contemplation is not enough.  They study these semiabstract shapes by following backward the historical process under which they were developed and during which they lost their contact with the world of optical appearances; they attempt to discover the objective model from which the symbol was evolved.  Sometimes the evolution has gone far.  One of two groups of equally serious explorers saw in a detail of Stela B at Copán a parrot, while the other saw an elephant.

Such results at this picture-puzzle game point at least to one of the vital characteristics of American arts.  If in the case of European or Asiatic civilizations, we observe the attempts at plastic abstraction, for instance, the Mycenaean chimera, the Egyptian Sphinx, or certain Hindu gods, we find them to be a hybrid conglomerate of anatomically exact organs.  This realism of detail causes the organism as a whole to remain of an unconvincing reality.  The mind of the American artist goes further and, impelled by a stronger logic, reforms the very essence of each natural detail as part of his creation.  Thus, the plastic entity, because lacking all points of contact with the optical daily appearances, acquires as a whole a more convincing autonomy than the Egyptian Sphinx, for example, this one being still too much entangled with the experiences of our common sense. 

The esthetic urge in an individual may be the sole motive for creating a new pot shape or decorating a vase, but when we pass from the Maya art objects to their art monuments, we find those magnificent monoliths so impressively illogical in their jungle surroundings that we understand better how much theirs had been a social role.  Born, perhaps like all great art realizations, of the mind if not the hands of a single individual, each monument was nevertheless backed by a social urge, by the need of a people.  Thus, looking for the spring inside the spring, our purely plastic documentation cannot satisfy us fully.  It is necessary to complete the picture by looking for corollary traces of this esthetic hunger of crowds in the other remains of their civilization and mainly in the noblest of all, their literature. 

We may ask of Maya texts, about a fifth of whose hieroglyphics have now been deciphered, to throw a sidelight on Maya art especially in its social manifestations.  The very great majority of these texts, as we read them on codices and monuments, happen to be, not literary, but mathematical, treating of astronomical computations, of the movements of the sun and moon and the planets.  Thus the backbone of Art, the mental skeleton that the Maya priesthood offered to the artist to clothe thus with his own esthetic passion, is mathematical.  Numbers, being measure and rhythm, are poetry in essence, but accessible only to a few.  In order to attract crowds, it must be clad in less metaphysical garments.  This was the role of the Maya artists, sculptors, modellers, and painters.  They made this dry, if noble, dogma partake of the richness of the landscape, yet not following it in its disorder, but creating a human tropic of a new shape and meaning. 

Stela 11 in Yaxchilán, perhaps the most impressive conception ever attempted in sculpture, shows that the artist fully understands his role.  Here trembling worshippers kneel before a shrine; the god appears, a frightful god indeed.  Behind the godly mask magnificently carved, the artist reveals to us, and to us only, the profile of the priest who impersonates the god, a dry, shrewd, scientific person wholly disdainful of the tremendous sensation that his disguise creates. 

The more popular art objects show, of course, a wealth of grinning gods, old gods, black gods, and among them the young beauty of the Maize God.  Thus did the artist grind food for popular sentimentality, something to cling to when one ignores mathematics and yet needs a faith and a moral. 

Although the Maya civilization has disappeared long ago, Maya art is still a living reality for Maya people.  Hunters in the bush still make offerings of deer at the foot of carved stelae and burn copal in wooden spoons. 

As to the well-nigh atheism of the priesthood and their love of astronomical calculation, I once got a striking reflex of it through an exchange of remarks between Yucatecan workmen; they were masons with antique Maya profiles,[4] busy restoring the columns of one of their fallen temples.  Such people in such a setting had erased from my mind the centuries elapsed since the Spanish Conquest, and only as an afterthought did I marvel at what they said. 

“How many gods are there?” one asked. 

And swiftly the answer came: “How many gods?  Ask this to the Moon.” 

 



[1] Jean Charlot wrote this article apparently at the request of Anita Brenner.  He made the following mentions of it in his letters to her: 

I am writing your article on Maya art.  I just think you will have to revise it because I am not here in my “english speaking” mood and not much in a mood of writing articles, either.  It is going to be about 5 pages and more a general introduction to the meaning of this art than a description of art objects.  (“I am writing your article”) 

I send you fotos Fidencio, an article on Maya art… (“I send you fotos Fidencio”) 

I send this as it is.  Cut, add, reform, do what you want of it.  To make a definitive copy would mean two or three days more and I thought you would prefer to have it now… 

page one line 17 instead of “taste” I want the word for dogs following a scent: Is it flair?

page 4 : line 4 : chimera ?

put the title you want.

Don’t mention (al menos que sea en dato biografico [‘unless in a biographical note’]) my connection with Carnegie I. (“I send this as it is”) 

Why was not the Maya Art article published?  I spoke of it and wrote of it to people because nothing could make me think that you were not sure to publish it.  And yet nothing happened. (“It would be useless to recriminate”)

The letters are undated but discuss events of 1928: Charlot and his mother are preparing to travel to New York City, and Tina Modotti is photographing the frescoes of José Clemente Orozco in the Escuela Preparatoria, Mexico City. 

This article was never published.  Susannah Glusker found it among the papers of her mother, Anita Brenner, and kindly sent me a photocopy.  Charlot used this article as the foundation of his “Mayan Art,” Magazine of Art, Volume 28, Number 7, July 1935, pp. 418–423 (republished in his An Artist on Art, Volume 2, pp. 39–45).

I have edited from the photocopy.  One word at the end has been cut off at the margin.  Although Charlot asked Brenner to regularize his English, I have not been able to distinguish her hand on the typescript.  I have left most of Charlot’s Gallicisms as a record of his English as he began to write in that language. 

[2] Original: taste.

[3] Original: remains being.

[4] Word cut off at left margin.