The show of Olmec works, opening today (February 19) at the De Young presents art works from a people whose civilization is still mysterious. It emerged roughly 3,000 years ago in the eastern lowlands along Mexico's Gulf Coast in what is today the region of Vera Cruz and Tabasco. Arguably, the Olmecs provided the foundation for all Mesoamerican art, much the way ancient Greek art did for subsequent European culture.
There are 100 objects on display at the De Young, drawn primarily from Mexican national collections with additional loans from over 25 museums. Included in the exhibition are colossal heads, a large-scale throne, and monumental stelae in addition to precious small-scale vessels, figures, adornments, and masks. The exhibit is divided into five sections, highlighting such topics as the Olmec heartland, the outlying communities and the Olmec legacy. There are videos showing current excavations and well written wall text, important to understand this still-mysterious people. The show is elegantly and simply presented, with none of the visual clutter that has often impeded previous shows in this small space.
However, the show would have benefited from a time line, showing how the late Olmec civilization overlapped other emerging civilizations such as the Maya and even how the Olmec culture stood in comparison with contemporary events world wide.
Small-scale jadeite objects, which embody the symbolism of sacred and secular authority among the Olmec, attest to the long-distance exchange of rare resources that existed as early as 1000 BC. Olmec artists were unsurpassed in their ability to work this extremely hard stone with elementary tools of stone, water and sand. One astonishing piece is a stone hammer with a subtle imprint of a human foot carved into the stone.
Along with the colossal heads, the show has several examples of the Olmec “chubby naked babies.” Sitting upright on stubby legs, their outsize baldheads are elongated and flattened, a sign of physical beauty achieved through the practice of binding skulls in infancy. The faces are what we would consider distinctively Olmec: almond-shaped eyes, round, puffy cheeks and full lips, often drawn downward into an angry scowl. They glare at the viewer, daring you to approach any closer. Some have fanged teeth showing through slightly open mouths, further emphasizing both the allure and danger implicit in all figurative Olmec art.
The meaning of the figures is a mystery but their features recur everywhere in Olmec art. "It was really all about the human body and human beings and humans with animal attributes," Berrin, curator in charge of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, explains.
"Colossal Masterworks" highlights smooth axes and ax fragments made from serpentine and greenstone. There are pendants, earrings, and a human bust in wood, one of only 20 that have survived through being buried in the salty lagoon in the Veracruz town of El Manati.
One of the true treasures of the exhibit is small - "Offering 4" (Group of Standing Figures and Celt's), a crowd of flat-headed men carved from precious stone, partially circled by enigmatic, inscribed celts, or ritual tools.
Were the Olmecs a people? Or does the term more accurately describe an artistic style? The word Olmec is derived from a word for rubber which was in use at the time of the Spanish conquest, but its application to archeological finds has always been inexact. Archaeologists simply do not know (which does not prevent scholary debate from raging hot and heavy in academic journals).
Three millennium separate us from this mysterious, powerful culture. The Olmec made answers hard to come by. They left no written records. Their social and spiritual beliefs, embodied in spectacular ritual implements, are a matter of guesswork. Even the “how did they do that” – without the wheel, animals such as horses or buffalos or machinery - is a matter of guesswork.
One is reminded of the line from Shelly,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The vision presented here is both vital and tragic and it’s a pity that the Olmecs left no Sophocles to enlighten us to what it all meant to them
Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico is curated by Kathleen Berrin, curator in charge of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Virginia M. Fields, senior curator of art of the ancient Americas at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
WHAT: "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico"
WHERE: de Young Museum, Herbst Exhibition
Galleries, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
WHEN: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays and 9:30 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Fridays through May 8
TICKETS: $15-$25; free for ages 5 and younger
CONTACT: 415-750-3600 or www.deyoung