Located at the northeast of the valley of Mexico, it served as a link between the cultures of the west of Mexico and its neighbors to the east. This link enabled a cultural interaction and the economic development of this culture by establishing a powerful center in Tzin Tzun Tzan, the capital of the Tarascan Empire.
Their most significant contribution in the arts was the creation of delicate and diminutive feminine figurines of the most diverse production. These figures were modeled by hand in solid clay and executed with every detail in “pastillaje” or “appliqué” including features, attires, and hair and body ornaments. They were then utilized as funeral offerings, eternal companions in the other world. They are commonly known as “pretty ladies”.
Tehotihuacan ceramics also received outside influences, particularly from the Mayan culture. The classical three-legged vessels in infinity of varieties, decoration, sizes and uses were vastly produced. Among the most exotic are the stucco-finished, applied and painted in the outside. Others are engraved with real life or mythical illustrations of unequaled beauty and delicacy. They also produced very dynamic hand made diminutive figures, masks, and large, very decorated incense vessels. By 450 A.D. pieces in molds were already being manufactured to satisfy the demand for the product, emphasizing quantity. Their symbol was the butterfly.
This culture is from one of the three states collectively referred to as “West Mexico”, but it has very distinct characteristics. Located in the current state of Colima, to the west of Mexico; it developed practically isolated, into one of the richest cultures in fine arts’ tradition of all Pre-Hispanic America. The sculpture of Colima is nurtured from the inspiration of its artists and their interest and observation of the environment and its surroundings, creating objects of excellent artistic and technical quality.
These objects were for the most part utilized as funeral offerings and buried in vertical tombs with complete rooms prepared for the other world. The oldest are solid with “pastillaje” or “appliqué” decoration, personifying leaders, important characters, family scenes and cultural representations among others.
Tlatilco: 900 B.C. – 500 B.C.
produced by an artist. Proof of that is the high technical quality we uniformly observe in their creations.
In ceramics, we find the most diverse variety of shapes in plates, vessels, bottles, censers, offerings receptacles and figures, all painted, engraved, carved, cut and molded with the finest clay and executed with the most technical precision. It is surprising that they did not even use the potter’s wheel to achieve the perfection in the way we can perceive in their vessels and in a matter of only a few centuries they managed to achieve such splendor. Equally surprising is the fact that they disappeared to the point of totally abandoning their cities. The Mayan works of art, especially the ones created for the upper social strata, are very appreciated by museums and art collectors, what makes them very scarce and valuable.
Michoacán: 500 B.C. – 0 A.D.
Huastecs: 300 A.D. – 1200 A.D.
The current territory of the state of Oaxaca, the descendants of the great Monte Alban empire, along with other regional cultural influences rise again in power in the post classic era in what we denominate today as the Mixtec culture. They were powerful warriors and talented artists who worked everything from pottery to metallurgy. Thanks to the distance from the valley of Mexico, fine manuscripts of the Mixtec tradition called codex still survive today. They show in detail the traditions, customs, names, gods, stories and all types of information that the oral tradition could not preserve.
Pottery also reflected these traditions and we find spectacular examples in shape, design and execution of the highest quality. Their most elaborate examples, baroquely decorated with the unique Mixtec style, a color scheme never achieved to that date, and the lavish representations of the gods and particular iconography, were valued and admired even by their archrivals, the Aztecs. Gold metallurgy was vastly worked, and rare examples of this fine art that surprisingly survived the European ambition for the so called “excrement of the gods” survive until today.
Guerrero/Mezcala/Chontal: 1000 B.C. – 100 B.C.
Established to the south of today’s Guatemala, the centers of Kaminaljuju and Izapa enjoyed a great prosperity from their modest origins as isolated centers. The contact with great urban centers as Teotihuacan enlivened the great expansion that continued to the north for the following centuries. However, their cities remained small in comparison and the panorama seemed more like the medieval feudal Europe with their “state cities”. During this period, the Mayan culture was in formation and adapting influences from previous cultures such as the Olmecs, developing a writing system and adopting new influences like that of Teotihuacan.
Their works of art are sometimes difficult to classify since by definition they belong to confrontation points of shocking cultural influences. Nevertheless, the base for the great Mayan culture that is developing is evident. Their stonework is exquisitely executed and gifted with a nomenclature that eventually disappears in later eras. Their pottery has direct
Colima: 200 B.C. – 250 A.D.
Jalisco: 200 B.C. – A.D.
Nayarit: 300 B.C. – 200 A.D.
Veracruz: 300 A.D. – 900 A.D.
In the surroundings of Mexico’s central valley, rises a culture that gives signals of having developed a cult to fertility for the great number of feminine figures encountered in funeral dedications. This is inferred by the emphasis in bulged breasts and hips, exaggerated legs and a thin waist. The hair and face received great attention in these figurines and are commonly called “pretty ladies”. On the other hand, other figures are stylistically grotesque, but endowed with great technical ability and an artistic license reminiscent of the “art brute” movement within the history of modern art.
In the Tlatilco artistic tradition, clay is utilized with great mastery by utilizing a high degree of kaolin in many pieces in addition to a fine finish. Organic paintings or clay slip were utilized to give color or a crystalline shine.
Teotihuacan: 100 B.C. – 650 A.D.
Izapa: 250 A.D. – 600 A.D.
The rich Olmec tradition during the pre-classical period gave birth to this Totonac culture along the Gulf of Mexico coast in a subtropical environment rich in rubber resin, cocoa bean and other resources.
The art production in this region stems mostly from the symbolism of the Mesoamerican ball game and exemplified in a vast number of yokes, axes and the so called “palms” carved in hard and volcanic rock with utmost precision. These objects were produced by lapidary masters with functional and ritualistic purposes, and decorated with local motives of the most varied imagination.
Their pottery production was of anthropomorphic themes and in a large format. Typical pieces include priests, deities, dancers, ball players and trophy heads, very unusual in their white clay utilization and only decorated with the use of the local “chapapote”. The style is very detailed with a frontal perspective and of vague gestures, but very well finished.
influences from Teotihuacan to the point that in a few centuries such features no longer seem foreign.
In the surroundings of the southeast of the valley of Mexico and exploiting rich mineral natural resources, these cultures developed an unprecedented lapidary tradition that continued for several centuries. The sculpture was typically representative and somewhat schematic, with a minimal use of lines and cuts and a mostly anthropomorphous theme, but also includes models of temples, masks, animals, etc. These figures that border on the abstraction, attract a source of inherent energy for which they were treasured since their era by all the cultures of the Mesoamerican territory. A subgroup known as Chontal offers a variant in design somewhat more naturalistic and representative with a more curvilinear shape. Both are highly prized by modern collectors due to their abstract/cubist qualities and their minimalist style.
Located to the north of the valley of Mexico, its economic advancements enabled the development of great urban centers. An example of this is the great city of Teotihuacan, a great metropolis that reached a population of a quarter of a million people. It was a great religious center from its heydays until much later than their political hegemony era and even its looting, destruction due to fire and its final abandonment around 650 A.D. Its artistic style influenced important cultures as distant as the Maya, demonstrating the active cultural exchange in the Mesoamerican territory.
Their most recognizable objects are the ceremonial/ritual masks, which were highly prized by many Pre-Hispanic cultures for centuries after the disappearance of the city. These masks carved in hard stone such as serpentine, onyx and granite represent neither dignitaries nor gods, but represent an abstract ideal of beauty. These fine pieces of art are some of the most coveted and valuable among Pre-Hispanic art collectors.
In the border of the states of Michoacán and Guanajuato lays the town where this culture flourished for a short period of time, leaving a unique legacy of pottery production with an unmistakable style. Three-dimensional ceramics were produced both solid as well as hollow, even though solid ones are believed to precede hollow techniques. These pieces of excellent finish are predominantly feminine figures of variable sizes of erect body and with somewhat voluptuous hips, arms to the side and richly painted in red, black and beige simulating attires of variable geometric patterns. The patterns that are repeated in the face as tattoos are unique in the Mexican territory and possibly identify them as a nation in their textiles. The pieces are extremely rare in the market, especially in good conservation state and they reach high prices.
Chupícuaro: 0 B.C. – 200 A.D.
It is considered the mother of all the future cultures of the Mesoamerican territory. The Olmecs developed great technological advancements that granted them the necessary economic advantage to establish themselves as the prevailing culture and religion for the next centuries. San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes are widely recognized as the most important centers discovered so far; however, their power and influence spread for hundreds of miles and hundreds of years. The Olmec culture left indisputable traces in iconographic, cultural, religious, linguistic, architectural features, and in every aspect of daily life for over three thousand years of cultural development in America.
Other recognized sub categories within the Nayarit variety are Ixtlan del Rio, Lagunillas and Chinesco among others.
This culture had its evolution from the Olmec and Veracruz tradition giving more relevance to the Venus myth as the goddess of creation. Its art is of strictly religious nature, reason for which we encounter multiple representations of this myth. Its stone sculpture tends to be monumental, rigid and of great contextual content.
Its pottery art is more realistic, representing ball players and the feminine ideal and evolves for centuries towards a more stylized and slender style. The utilitarian ceramic production obtained a new dynamism by the end of the post-classic period integrating the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figuration into the vessel shape, along with new geometric elements painted in black and white.
This other culture of the west of Mexico and the most northwestern is one of the most prolific. It belongs to the group of cultures that constructed vertical tombs. The Nayarit art is recognized for being very primitive in style and technique. The sculpture is not one of divinities or myths, but it recreates the daily living. Examples of its production include community leaders, warriors, musicians, ball players, pregnant women, pets, also group scenes such as “voladores”, festivities ceremonies, family scenes and even models of their houses and towns. These pieces have been the best tools to testimony the life style of this culture, which unequivocally demonstrate details of a lost past.
The technique is simple in its execution but always direct and with dignity. Their characters are presented dressed up and adorned with earrings, necklaces, nose rings, bracelets, and almost always a smile. The organic painting that was utilized is still observed in many pieces and clearly show textile patterns that did not survive. The colors utilized include red, black, white and beige.
Maya: 600 A.D. – 900 A.D.
When they dominate the hollow figure, they achieve an unprecedented technical and visual development. The sculpture silhouette is simplified by creating a far more refined piece. Also, diverse themes proliferate that now include flora and fauna incorporated into the vessels. Characters of shamans and common people, warriors, ball players, musicians, acrobats and even the deformed, sick and handicapped abound. Their most recognized figures are the famous Colima dogs, guides in death to the other world. Some sub-categories or groups are recognized within Colima such as the Comala, Ortices and Coahuayana among others.
Stylistically, this culture is defined with the myth of a deity that is half man and half jaguar. This dual character between the human and the divine will define the Mesoamerican religious development for the following centuries. We understand their iconography through widely widespread symbols in their days that would have been easily recognizable by the participant members of their society. These symbols consist of figurative, derived, and abstract representations from the monster/deity myth, plus an endless number of apparently phonetic symbols that are the basis of the first written language in America. Also, representations of birds, fish, feminine fertility figures, babies in diverse postures, power figures, masks and deities abound as part of the Olmec mythology.
Objects were finely finished and technically well developed, in clay as well as in stone and jade, and were produced for the members of the community and the elite with utilitarian, funeral and ritual/religious purposes. The surviving objects of the Olmec culture are among the scarcest and most valuable.
forms, uses and styles. Among the most recognized subgroups are Ameca, Autlán, San Juanito, El Arenal, Etzatlán, Tala/Tonala and Pihuamo among others.
The Mayan culture was undeniably the most sophisticated in terms of its artistic development. The stylistic and technical diversity in all the aspects of their artistic creation demonstrate a special attention and importance to the arts. Their works of art, product of the Mayan elite, show a tradition of centuries that only a school reserved for the most talented could create. These schools produced the most sophisticated architects, lapidaries, sculptors, scribes, painters, potters and artisans never equaled in their era. They accepted influences from other cultures, surpassing them in a greater degree of sophistication by incorporating those to their own artistic traditions. The advantage of a writing system enabled the Mayans to preserve and proclaim all that knowledge to the upcoming generations by maintaining a cultural supremacy unquestionable for centuries.
Everything in the Mayan world was decorated. From the simplest utilitarian plate to the most lavish temple was
Between the states of Colima and Nayarit stands Jalisco, which is much larger in territory and therefore we see much more stylistic diversity. It is part of the territory where the funeral tradition of vertical tombs was practiced. Their craftsmanship traditions include everything from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. The most characteristic figures are the funeral couples. They are found in infinity of variants, men and women created in clay and destined to be buried together. Apparently, the tradition was broadly practiced since they can be found in all styles and subgroups. Generally, they are shown sitting or squatting, although also standing; dressed up and adorned with their best attires and with some object in their hands that include plates, glasses, musical instruments, balls, fans, scepters, weapons and even children, they seem to be ready for their final trip. These couples are very much appreciated by collectors and museums as well. We also find in Jalisco other types of pieces such as individual figures of maternity, pets, warriors and ball players, utilitarian pieces of varied
Mixtec: 1200 A.D. – 1521 A.D.
Around of what is now the State of Oaxaca in Mexico, one of the most dynamic cultures of Mesoamerica developed. Established in the midst of three valleys as the Zapotec capital, it came to unify this resource-rich territory. Its art is influenced by the Olmecs but begins to evolve by 200 B.C. From this point on, its iconography is centered in deities that galvanize the power of their leaders and protect them in the other world. Their art, charged with a varied religious iconography, is mainly of funeral purpose. The style is one that, although elaborate, demonstrates a great control and restraint; proof of that is their monochromatism and symbolic tradition.
Aztecs: 1200 A.D. – 1521 A.D.
Pottery was utilized scarcely and with more or less reasonable results. The utilitarian pieces were brought from the provinces conquered by the empire as a tributary method and they entered in vogue and left in obsolescence subject to the fluctuations of the state. The Aztec works of art are rare to find in the market and tend to be highly priced.
Monte Albán: 600 B.C. – 900 A.D.
Olmec: 1500 B.C. - 0 C.E.
The Aztecs were the last culture to consolidate power in the Mesoamerican territory before the Spanish conquest. Proof of their power and wealth were first annotated by the conquerors, which did not stop getting surprised at the majesty of their achievements. The great city of Tenochtitlan, artificially anchored in the center of a lake and proof of the engineering advancement of their constructors, fell to the outpost of the conquerors and their mercenaries, indigenous groups that were enemies of the tax abuses of their own leaders.
The artistic works of the Aztecs glorify their gods and their wars in all their manifestations. The state existed by and for its expansion. The artistic production was also part of that philosophy and becomes a propaganda method of the state. The lapidary and sculpture production was the most relevant and prevalent, since it is the most self-serving and permanent.
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