11 November 2012

A Pre-Columbian art attack!

The pre-Columbian artisans of Peru produced some exquisite artworks, particularly ceramics, and I have now been lucky enough to see many of the places where these ancient cultures of Peru built their cities, worshipped their gods and buried their dead, near Chiclayo and Trujillo in the north, near Nazca in the south and here in Cusco.

This afternoon I spent a delightful couple of hours once again admiring their skill, their dexterity, their fine rendering of birds and animals, and the apparent simplicity of their human representation, all in one place. If you ever come to Cusco and you appreciate the art of ancient civilisations, you simply must visit the Museo de Arte Precolombino in Plaza de las Nazarenas, just a short walk from the Plaza de Armas in the central city.
Casa Cabrera, the building that houses the museum, is itself beautiful, and a fine example of colonial architecture, with exhibition rooms on the ground and first floors surrounding a central courtyard. Built in the 1550s, the building originally housed the convent of Santa Clara, then passed into the hands of Don Jer¤înimo Luis de Cabrera and Cerda, a city official, hence the name of the building and the coat of arms on its facade. The earthquake that devastated Cusco in 1950 caused major damage to the building but, luckily, the Continental Bank bought Casa Cabrera in 1981 and has since restored it to its former glory.
The museum’s exhibitions include rooms of gold and silver craftworks, shell and bone jewellery, and colonial paintings but, for me, the ceramics of the formative epoch, the Nazca civilisation, the Mochica, Huari and Chimu cultures, as well as those Johnny-come-latelies, the Inca, were the highlight. So, let me take you on a visual tour through Peru’s early art history, from 1250BC to 1632AD.
Cupisnique, formative period, 1250BC - 1AD
Viru, formative period, 1250BC - 1AD

The sculpted bottle on the left depicts a beheaded man, probably symbolic of some religious ceremony. The lips of his inverted head form the mouth of the bottle. On the right, the body of this pitcher is adorned with geometric patterns and a wonderful animal head - probably a feline - decorates the upper body.

These bowls are from the Nazca culture, dating from 1 to 800AD, and they represent trophy heads, taken from the enemy in times of war. The artist didn't possess great sculptural skills but his painting was superb, expressing perfectly the ferocity, pain and strength of the doomed men.

The Mochica culture also existed from 1 to 800AD, but their artisans introduced a radical change into the art of ceramics, attaining high levels of sculptural excellence and pictorial design, as these three bottles clearly show. They are representations of the same individual, presumably someone of high importance, but were crafted by different artists. The Mochica ceramics are the most beautifully sculpted works of Peruvian antiquity. 

These bottles in the shape of cormorants are also from the Mochica period. Their graceful shapes are superb and so fluid. The artist obviously had a talent for observation and for transforming his observations into such fine pieces.

I can't resist including just one more piece from the Mochica culture. This humanised figure of a deer is just so  exquisite, with its plastic shape, its huge ears and bulging eyes, its finely rendered antlers and that wonderfully cheeky tongue. 

The Huari civilisation succeeded that of the Nazca and the Mochica, and spanned the period from 800 to 1300AD. The Huari people spread through much of Peru, from Chiclayo in the north to Nazca in the south, and extending inland to Cusco and beyond. Their civilisation saw the beginning of nationhood in Peru, with their domination in religion and politics.  

The influence of the Mochica culture is obvious in Huari artworks, as you can see with these llama-head vessels. As beasts of burden and producers of wool and meat, llamas were important to the economy of the Huari, so it is no surprise that they were frequently represented on their ceramics. These particular examples are outstanding, for the fluidity of their shapes, the liveliness  of their design and, of course, I just love that tongue.

When the Huari empire came to an end around 1300AD, the Chancay-Chimu culture arose in northern and central coastal Peru. For some unknown reason, their artisans chose to reject the use of colour in their artworks and focused instead on form and on achieving perfect harmony in the proportions of their pieces. Though it may not be entirely realistic in its depiction, the pelican above is a perfect example of this. 

At the same time as the Chancay-Chimu civilisation was flourishing, so was the Inca culture and, eventually, their empire, which lasted from 1300 to 1532 AD, stretched all the way from modern-day Ecuador to southern Chile. Most people know of the Incas' incredible ability to construct magnificent cities, but their artworks are not as well known. Their craftsmen worked in wood, in clay, and in stone, producing stunning works that blend the beauty of art with the practicality of ritual use. Their style is a synthesis of the magnificence of the Pre-Columbian cultures that preceded them.

The influence of the Chimu can be seen in the sculpted bottle, pictured at right. The simplicity of design in this representation of a condor is a good example of Inca ceramic work, and the stylised stone llamas shown below are fine exemplars of Inca stonework. 
Known as conopas, these llama sculptures were created as offerings to the gods and symbolised the importance to the Inca of the submission of man to the immensity and power of nature. 

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