Body and soul in art Art: Olmec artifacts displayed at the National Gallery give us an indication of what this ancient people and their culture were like.


One of the most evocative pieces in the powerful Olmec exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington -- and one most expressive of Olmec culture -- is the statue of a priest holding a baby, "Las Limas Monument 1."

Sculpted in highly polished greenstone, the priest sits cross-legged, almost in a lotus position. His nearly life-sized figure has the elongated head and stocky body typical of representations of the Olmec people.

Living in Mexico 3,000 years ago, the Olmec had the first complex culture in the Americas. This exhibit, which is on view outside of Mexico for the first time, contains 120 Olmec artifacts. Among them are tools, jewelry, ceramics, masks and statues, including an enormous head from San Lorenzo.

The statues suggest the Olmec body type: The back is broad; the shoulders are round and muscular; the hands and feet more square than tapered. The face is large and rectangular with the eyes almond-shaped, the nose broad, the lips thick. The mouth is slightly open, often revealing teeth.

The expression on the face, though, is most remarkable. Although the Olmec body is crudely made, often looking more like blocks of stone than body parts, the face shows every nuance of emotion. By comparison, ancient Greek sculpture, which emphasizes muscle tone and body shape, shows much less concern for facial expression. Greek faces look almost bland beside the Olmec.

The priest's face in "Las Limas Monument 1" glows. His mouth is caught between a smile and a frown. His head tilts up as if receiving a blessing. His eyes look toward the center of the room, rapturous. The scene is a warm one, reminiscent of the Madonna and Child.

The cause of this warmth seems to be the baby, cradled between the knees. But, on closer inspection, what first looks like a baby shows itself to be a hybrid. The body -- trunk, arms and legs -- is baby-like. The face is furious, however; the lips, nose and eyes seem more animal than human. This creature is a were-jaguar, a hybrid of man and animal, sacred to the Olmecs.

"Las Limas Monument 1" is considered the Olmec "Rosetta Stone." Religious symbols are engraved in tattoo fashion on the priest's shoulders and knees. These symbols, which resemble hieroglyphics, suggest the expression on the priest's face results from the transformation that he has effected. The priest, who is actually a shaman, has changed the human being into a powerful (part jaguar) divine being, ensuring the baby contact with the spirit world.

Did the baby die? Was it murdered as a sacrifice? Was it a depiction of a ruler as a child? Was it a burial memento? No one knows. Little is known about Olmec culture, since these were a preliterate people who left no written record. Even their name, Olmec, comes from the Aztec word for rubber country -- archaeologists have found Olmec artifacts in southern Mexico, where rubber trees grow.

It is believed the Olmec descended from Ice Age ancestors who came from northern Asia by way of the land bridge that once crossed the Bering Strait. They lived near the Mexican Gulf Coast long before the Maya, the Teotihuacan and the Aztec.

Raising maize, beans and squash, they supplemented their diet with wild game and fish. With social class determined by wealth, the Olmec lived in a hierarchical society, which included farmers, artisans, rulers and priests.

The Olmec disappeared about 300 B.C., leaving only their art, its principal subject being the human figure. This exhibit shows that figure in many stages: from a startled baby to a fearsome warrior to a playful acrobat to an awe-inspired youth to the ecstatic priest and, finally, to an angry wrestler.

"The San Lorenzo Monument 61" or "Colossal Head 8," the first object in the exhibit, portrays the head of a young warrior ruler. A mammoth sculpture made of white stone, weighing 9 1/2 tons and measuring 7 feet high, it is also the heaviest work ever installed in the National Gallery.

The ruler is adorned with jade ear-spools, which are further adorned with hieroglyphic-type engravings. Engravings also adorn his helmet. No one knows exactly what these markings mean, but most scholars believe they have a religious significance.

"Relief Carving of an Earth-Monster Face," another enormous stone piece, has similar markings. The face seems to be the doorway into a cave -- the mouth being the cave's entrance. The figure is etched with jaguar eyes and dragon eyebrows -- a wavy line suggestive of fire. What is most interesting about the etchings is their suggestion of man's ancient need to connect with the transcendent.

That need is also evident in various pieces in the exhibit -- from the group of Barbie-doll-sized men participating in a religious ceremony to the hand-sized shaman shown in various steps of transformation into a were-jaguar to the nearly life-sized, ecstatic priest with the monster-baby.

Pub Date: 8/04/96


What: "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico"

Where: National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue between Third and Seventh streets Northwest, Washington

When: Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through Oct. 20

Call: (202) 737-4215

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