With the collaboration of two leading aficionados of ancient Indian art, Harry Abrams Inc. has published a handsome though expensive picture book. The great majority of the pieces, never before illustrated, were sold through the Stendahl Galleries of Los Angeles, one of the most reliable dealers in fine Mesoamerican art. The choice of objects for this book, made by Alfred Stendahl, reflects types available to American collectors, such as clay figures, especially from western Mexico, but includes few monumental pieces. The quality of the reproductions is satisfactory, although many of the black-and-white photographs are blurry from being overenlarged. Also the painting out of many backgrounds occasionally results in cropping the outlines of a piece. The numerous color plates did not require touching up since they were posed against simple backgrounds, the colors of which are overly bright. In addition, printing errors often intensify either red or blue. Nonetheless, these illustrations provide an excellent reference source for examples of Middle American art in North American collections.
The voluminous material is divided by period and area into six chapters: the Formative period, western Mexico, the Classic period in Mexico, the Postclassic period in Mexico, the Maya area, and lower Central America. Each chapter contains an introduction to the cultural context of the art by Hasso von Winning, a prolific writer of short articles on Mesoamerican art, who is at present associated with the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles. His text is generally accurate and well written, presenting commonly-accepted opinions on each culture. More recent information has occasionally been overlooked or reluctantly incorporated, depriving the text of real authority.
Some inaccuracies in dating mar the text. Large hollow clay figures first appear in the Early Formative period at Tehuacán, San Lorenzo, and Las Bocas, not late in the Formative as attributed in the book. In Yon Winning’s discussion of western Mexican art, he mentions the early radiocarbon date of 150 B.C., but the implication of this date is then not assimilated in the chronology of the clay figures, which are conventionally placed in the Classic (A.D. 300-900). Equally out of date, his interpretation of west Mexican figures as representing everyday scenes does not correspond to Peter Fürst’s convincing demonstration of shamanistic ritual in the art. Finally, the late dates assigned to Costa Rican jades account neither for their association with Formative ceramics nor for their connection with the Olmec-derived lapidary tradition, as demonstrated in the new booklet by Elizabeth Easby.
Many out-of-date concepts reappear in the discussion. Yon Winning upholds a qualified version of the myth concerning peaceful theocracies during the Classic, thanks to the pervasive images of gods and priests (p. 156). In contrast, the Postclassie art stresses warriors and sacrifices. But art shows only selected subjects, which cannot be used to obtain an accurate record of reality. The power structure of Mesoamerican society remained essentially the same in both Classic and Postclassic periods, in spite of obvious artistic differences. Rulers during both eras underwent a period of training as priests, so that they could exercise spiritual as well as temporal power. Many god impersonators in Classic art probably are rulers acting as priests, while some warriors in Postclassic scenes are rulers exercising their military role.
Von Winning also maintains there is “little evidence of true cities” among the Maya (p. 280), despite recent evidence of many perishable dwellings uncovered around the temple areas at Tikal, Barton Ramie, and Seibal. Although he states that no Teotihuacán sculpture except the Old Fire God braziers appeared outside the type site (p. 157), funerary masks of fine stone were more plentiful in Puebla than at Teotihuacán itself. During the Postclassic, fine gold and silver were used not only in the Mixteca, as Yon Winning claims (p. 231), but also in Monte Albán IV, Chiapas, and the Yucatán.
In spite of these small disagreements with the text, it can be recommended as a good introduction to the cultures of Middle America. The artistic qualities of the various art styles are best appreciated in the large illustrations of over six hundred pieces, which give this book its most lasting value.