USK:MTL : Aztec Archaeology
The other day USK:MTL sketchers met up at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum for an exhibit on Aztec culture.
What a fascinating show! It is closed now – we met for our drawing outing on the last day of the exhibit. We were lucky to get this great collection of work here in Montreal. A miniature version of what can be seen in Mexico City of course – but impressive nonetheless.
I’m always inspired by the imagination and unique sense of design in the ancient South American cultures. I’ve always been more attracted to Mayan art vs. the more decorative Aztec – particularly when it comes to visiting archaeological sites. But in this show, I was exposed to a wider range of sculptural forms than I’d previously seen. This exhibit presented things as a continuum of design, rather than distinct periods.
I admit to spending my whole time looking and drawing – enjoying things in a naive way – rather than actually reading any of the informative panels. (Sorry museum people! You work so hard. I’ll have to do some after-the-fact-research to learn more about what I saw).
Though there were many ‘in the round’ figurative forms on display – statues and clay figurines – I’m more intrigued by the solid shapes of the architectural carving. The designs are cut into cubes or wedge shaped masses of rock, making powerfully planar forms. Everything has such a massive strength.
Like most museum shows of antiquities, the items here were dramatically lit with top-down lights casting deep shadows. I love this presentation visually – it makes for great drawings of the sculpture.
It seemed very natural to sketch entirely with a brush pen – just drawing the negative and positive shapes of light. I came in after with some accents of watercolor – as of course we can’t paint inside the exhibit hall.
But I can’t help but think – as much as I like it – isn’t this an odd practice museums do? Why do they make these things look so moody? Some of these figures are rain-deities or female figures related to fertility and domesticity. Yes, some of them have to do with death and sacrifice – but not all of them. When we see things in this theatrical lighting, everything becomes kind of like telling ghost stories around the campfire. Shining a flashlight under your chin.
When we were in Singapore recently, I noticed how the Hindu temples wreathed the statues in fresh flowers. The Buddhist temples were brightly lit with gold decoration and colorful murals on the walls. If you put one of those statues in the dark under a spotlight – suddenly it’s an angry vengeful god. Put it in a sunny courtyard draped with colorful silk and flowers – and you get a different feeling entirely.
I think it creates a false impression of these cultures. Yes, there was human sacrifice involved at times – but I can’t help thinking everyday life wasn’t as grim as people seem to think it was. I’m not saying it’s a party for the guy getting his heart cut out – but I don’t think they did that every Sunday either. I guess I don’t know for sure – readers who are anthropologists – tell us what this is all about! Write us in the comments :)
BUT – all that being said – I did do a couple of fun watercolors playing up the dramatic lighting.
These are pencil drawings done in the exhibit on Fabriano Artistico, then painted back home. The drawings were fairly well developed, indicating all the shadow shapes.
These were sort of just playtime for me. I felt like using a tube of Payne’s Grey that I normally dislike. I had a bad experience with it and haven’t brought it out since. I’ve been meaning to just squeeze out a big blob of the stuff and use it up!
I paired that with a tube of Tiger’s Eye Genuine. A Daniel Smith Primatek color – which is in their ground-rock series. It seemed appropriate to paint carved stones with ground stone.
The background is painted with clear water and the Payne’s Grey is splattered and dropped with a fully loaded brush. The color floats on the water, and will not leave the wet area – so you get that nice sharp edge with the figure. You can get some nice floating effects if you get in while it’s wet. I actually did this twice – once with a paler tint, and the second time with full strength pigment.