Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico at the de Young

Sep 1, 2010

Sculpture of large head

Colossal Head 5, Mexico, Veracruz, Municipality of Texistepec, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, 1200–900 BC, basalt, 73 1/4 x 56 11/16 x 49 1/4 inches. Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana. Photo: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia–Mexico–Javier Hinojosa

San Francisco, August 2010—Considered the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica and recognized as America’s oldest civilization, the people known today as the Olmec developed an iconic and sophisticated artistic style as early as the second millennium BC. The Olmec are best known for the creation of colossal heads carved from giant boulders that have fascinated the public and archaeologists alike since they were discovered in the mid-19th century. The monumental heads remain among ancient America’s most awe-inspiring and beautiful masterpieces today. Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico, featuring over 100 objects drawn primarily from Mexican national collections with additional loans from over twenty-five museums, is presented at the de Young Museum February 19 to May 8, 2011. 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.

Olmec brings together for the first time new finds and monuments that have never been seen by American audiences and reveals new scholarship on Olmec culture and artifacts. Curator Kathleen Berrin explains, “In the fifteen years since the last Olmec exhibition on American soil, archaeologists have made amazing finds at key sites in Mexico. Informed by the most recent scholarship, this sweeping international project brings together a terrific collection of artworks that paint a vivid portrait of life in the Olmec heartland.”

The pre-Hispanic Olmec civilization flourished in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco between 1400 and 400 BC, corresponding with the Golden Age of Greece and the Zhou Dynasty of China. Olmec architects and artists produced the earliest monumental stone structures and sculptures in North America, including enormous basalt portrait heads of their rulers weighing up to twenty-four tons. Examples of large-scale works in the exhibition include:

  • Colossal Head 5 from San Lorenzo––discovered in 1946, it was created using a combination of polishing and fine and rough hammering.
  • Stela 1 (female figure) from La Venta––standing over eight feet tall, the stela presents a surprisingly naturalistic female figure in a pleated skirt standing in a niche.
  • Monuments 7–9 (twin figures and jaguar) from Loma del Zapote-El Azuzul––a sculptural representation of two young Olmec rulers, twins, paying homage to a feline-jaguar deity.

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, and Olmec artists were unsurpassed in their ability to work this extremely hard stone with elementary tools of chert, water and sand. Jadeite highlights on view include:

  • Kunz Axe (votive axe) depicting a supernatural being whose physical features are drawn from multiple sources in the natural world.
  • A massive selection of polished axes from El Manati made from serpentine, greenstone, and gray, green, black and veined stones.
  • Offering 4 (group of sixteen standing figures and celts) from La Venta, an extraordinary discovery from 1955, is a multiple group of religious figures engaged in a major ceremonial scene.
  • Majestic winged plaque with Maya hieroglyphic text on the verso dating to 100 BC.

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. A fully illustrated 288-page catalogue edited by Berrin and Fields, with a foreword by John E. Buchanan, Jr. and Michael Govan, accompanies the exhibition. Centering on the concept of discovery, this wide-ranging volume presents a fresh look at Olmec civilization, recapturing the excitement that greeted the unearthing of the first colossal stone head in the mid-19th century. Published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, the catalogue includes essays by: Ann Cyphers, Richard A. Diehl, David C. Grove, Sara Ladrón de Guevara, Diana Magaloni Kerpel, Christopher A. Pool, and F. Kent Reilly III. The catalogue is available in the Museum Stores (hardcover $65; softcover $39.95).

Symposium and lecture
A series of speakers reveal new discoveries about the Olmec civilization at a symposium on February 19, opening day, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium. Tickets are $8/general, $5/members and available at the de Young admissions desk or online. Seating is first come, first served. The program is as follows:

  • Among Jaguars and Serpents: Olmec Art and Iconography by Sara Ladrón de Guevara, Director, Xalapa Museum, Xalapa, Mexico
  • The Real Dirt on San Lorenzo by by Ann Cyphers, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
  • Mounds, Monuments, and Misadventures at Tres Zapotes by Christopher Pool, University of Kentucky
  • The Ecstasy and the Agony: The La Venta Excavations by Susan Gillespie, University of Florida
  • Forty Years of Archaeology on the Olmec Frontier by David Grove, University of Florida

Morning session 10:00–11:45 a.m.: Sara Ladrón de Guevara, Ann Cyphers
Afternoon session 1:30–3:45 p.m.: Christopher Pool, Susan Gillespie, David Grove

On April 30 Dr. John E. Clark presents his lecture “Olmec Rituals and Beliefs” in the Koret Auditorium. The lecture begins at 10:00 a.m. and seating is limited and first come, first served. Jade artifacts have provided critical direct and indirect evidence for reconstructing parts of Olmec rituals and beliefs. This presentation surveys the range of Olmec jade artifacts and their functions and meanings, with a focus on jade axes and their non-utilitarian uses. Jade objects were placed in special offerings and burials. Others are depicted on stone monuments or inscribed with special depictions themselves. These objects furnish durable evidence of ancient shamanistic practices, beliefs in animal soul companions, autosacrifice or bloodletting, human sacrifice, and gods and other supernatural creatures. The few items recovered in archaeological context provide special insight into ancient ritual practices and beliefs.

Funding for the San Francisco production of the exhibition is provided by the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Traveling Exhibitions.

The exhibition was organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in collaboration with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes—Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia de México. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Education and public program presented in conjunction with the exhibition are sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, Wells Fargo, the Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation, S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Lauren L. T. Hall and David Hearth, and the Friends of AOA.

FAMSF-Mexico Partnership
The Olmec exhibition builds upon a unique and expansive history of cooperation between the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Mexico. FAMSF’s relations with Mexico, catalyzed by an unexpected and large bequest of Teotihuacan wall paintings in the late 1970s, have resulted in a series of collaborative exchange projects, among them the Teotihuacan murals conservation project and exhibition Teotihuacan: City of the Gods (1993), Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (2004), and loans to Mexico of American paintings, African art and works by Henry Moore. Most recently, FAMSF loaned 15 objects from the Oceanic collection to the exhibition Moana: Cultures of the Pacific Isles at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Olmec Community Friday Nights \ Mar 25May 6, 2011
Every Friday from 5 to 8:45 p.m. view this exhibition free. Permanent collection and other special exhibitions not included.