John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's



The art of ancient Mesoamerica calls to mind many other traditions from around the world. Eighth century Classic Maya stelae dedicated to Lord Ubah Kawil of Copán, for example, are often compared to the sculptural traditions of southeast Asia. Some examples of Aztec sculpture resemble Archaic Greek statuary. On the other hand, screenfold books painted in the PostClassic Mixteca-Puebla style bring to mind figurative designs employed by twentieth century film animation studios. However, the resemblances are not the result of direct influence, but instead reveal an extraordinary capacity for innovation and experimentation by Pre-Columbian artists unmatched in any other part of the world. At any given time during Mesoamerican history - abstract, naturalistic, and expressionist movements could be evolving simultaneously in adjacent regions.

The earliest expressions in monumental art are found in Olmec stone sculpture, most notably the thick lipped, flat nosed portraits of warlords found at PreClassic San Lorenzo. At roughly the same time, relief panels carved at Monte Albán depict images of defeated enemy chiefs. Incipient forms of glyphs employed mainly as “labels” appear in both traditions.

During the Late PreClassic, a notable shift in emphasis occurs. Relief panels at Monte Albán employ pictographic place signs to designate conquered territory while a precocious, fully phonetic, writing system in a Mixe-Zoque language appears on the Gulf Coast. In the Maya lowlands, artists create stelae (upright stone monuments) portraying scenes from creation stories, as well as enormous mask panels that ornament the facades of towering buildings.

Throughout the Classic period, the Mesoamerican world was dominated by urban centers, the largest of which was Teotihuacán where palaces were lavishly ornamented with frescos. Highly abstract, geometric forms of the human body were expressed through colossal statuary. The writing system at Teotihuacán is best characterized as pictographic. Mixe-Zoque, on the other hand, is largely overshadowed by the development of a new phonetic script employed throughout much of eastern Mesoamerica by Maya city states. Zapotec writing experiences a florescence with large relief panels displaying extensive texts composed of both pictographic and phonetic components.

The Late Classic and Epi-Classic periods were an era of major social upheaval throughout Mesoamerica. Most of the great central lowland Maya centers were abandoned while new city states in the northern highlands scrambled for control over the trade routes that had once enriched Teotihuacán. Significantly, both pictographic and phonetic writing begin to play less of a role in communication as artists are furiously engaged in the development of new styles. Colossal forms continued with warrior columns at Tula, but panels depicting narrative scenes in carved relief predominate in the highlands, while the Maya of the Yucatán peninsula emphasize mask panels although much abstracted from their PreClassic antecedents.

Until the rise of the Aztec empire in the fifteenth century, Mesoamerica was mainly dominated by small factional kingdoms that competed with one another for membership in exclusive alliance corridors. It was at this time during the PostClassic, when regional government became the most segmented and commercially oriented, that emphasis was placed on the development of an international communication system, now known as the Mixteca-Puebla style after the region of southern México where it was most intensively employed. As this system is largely figurative in construction, scholars continue to argue over whether it was an art style, a form of pictographic writing, or both. Regional variations are found in both Aztec and Maya. Phonetic writing disappears entirely from the highlands and is reduced to simple repetitious texts in Maya screenfold books from the Yucatán peninsula. The explanation for the sudden adoption of so standardized a system by cultures who previously had possessed very distinctive writing or pictorial styles during the Classic period (Teotihuacán, Xochicalco, Ñuine, Monte Albán, Maya) is still a matter of debate.

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