Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico

Now Showing in Los Angeles

By Marita Adair

The  Olmec have arrived. Again. Three thousand five hundred years after their debut as a civilization, another  exquisite exhibition, Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico is front and center at the new Resnik Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) through Jan. 9, 2010. It’s been 15 years since the last pull-out-all-the-stops Olmec exhibit at Princeton University, “The Olmec: World Ritual and Rulership.” Since then the Olmec began revealing even more of their significant secrets.

This exhibition brings together not only the newest revealed secrets in the freshest scholarly research of this ever-changing subject, the Olmec who flourished 1400-400 B.C., but direct from Mexico, more than one of the famous colossal basalt stone Olmec portrait heads weighing between 7 and 10 tons each. Among the rarest objects is a carved wooden human bust buried in a spring-fed bog three thousand years ago. When it and 39 other wood busts were plucked from the muck in the 1980s, the news made headlines. Then came the carefully supervised, agonizingly slow, drying process. And now we can learn why they didn’t rot.

In all, the carefully assembled  exhibition showcases “more than 100 monuments, sculptures, adornments, masks, and vessels, many of which have never traveled beyond Mexico’s borders.” http://www.lacma.org/art/ExhibOlmec.aspx

Olmec hands created this magnificence with the rudimentary tools of  chert, water, and sand.

And we, through the brawny strength of modern transport, reap the visual benefits.

When a multiton Olmec head is moved anywhere, the question always arises about how the Olmec tussled these enormous pieces even an inch, much less from stone quarry and carving to placement, without knowledge of the wheel. It’s an ongoing puzzlement. But these days they are transported by multiwheeled flatbed trucks preceded by carefully orchestrated wrapping, crating, and lifting by crane.  The LACMA site provides a film of this process. http://tinyurl.com/396qksy beginning at the open-air Parque Museo La Venta (La Venta Museum Park) in Villahermosa, to the LACMA exhibition where children are gathered around the featured sculpture. It’s not one of the portrait heads, but we get the idea. And just in case we wondered how tricky it might be to put this exhibition in place once it arrived at LACMA, see behind-the-scenes installation photos at http://lacma.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/giant-heads-check/ Among those photos is a sneak-peek of one of the wooden human busts once submerged in mud.

And we,  through the highly evolved modern printing process, reap the benefit of up-to-this-moment knowledge of the Olmec in the exhibition catalog published by Yale University Press. http://tinyurl.com/25dybo5

I jest, of course. Not to trivialize the value and history of the printing process, but creating a catalog of this significance (or any catalog of a major exhibition for that matter) involves a tad more than printing. There’s a major assemblage of knowledge (specialized scholarship, sweaty, dirty digging, evaluation, and discussion), government and institutional cooperation, gathering and writing text, procuring permissions, and attention to detail. Oh yes, an editor, a publisher, layout artist, and a major pile of cash.

In the end, the birth process complete, from exhibition to catalog, the latest news of the Olmec is ours for the devouring  from the comfort of our lounge chairs, and/or at the exhibition itself.

From Los Angeles the exhibition travels to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, for display Feb. 19-May 8, 2011.

The exhibition is organized by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, LACMA, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.