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America’s Ancestral Art

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

Medieval American Art. By Pál Kelemen. The Macmillan Company. Two volumes. $22.50.

To mark something of the grandeur of the subject treated in becoming fashion by the monumental work before us, I know nothing so appropriate as Lessing’s story of the three rings, in “Nathan the Wise.” It is familiar to a surprisingly small number of Americans, and even these do not often give it an application to which it is suited with peculiar accuracy. This is in the field of art, where Lessing’s position as a pioneer philosopher renders intimately logical a recalling of his great allegory.

I repeat it in briefest form. In gray antiquity, a certain family of the Orient possessed a ring which, from father to son, denoted chieftaincy in the clan. At a given time, the father of three sons, loving them all equally and unable to decide which of them should be his successor, caused two other rings to he made, indistinguishable from the original one. After his death, the three young men present themselves before the judge who is to say which of them is the legal heir. Understanding the problem of their father, the judge finally charges the three litigants to come back after a long period of time. Then, he says, the true ring will have declared its virtue—which is to make its wearer beloved.

As with the different religions about which the Sultan in the Lessing drama had asked the wise old Jew, the arts of the various peoples justify their claim to legitimacy by the love which they call forth among men. And since the ancient art of America is the latest to come before the tribunal of mankind, the book before us, “Medieval American Art,” by Pal Kelemen, presenting the case of our continent as it has never been presented elsewhere, is a thing to hail with rejoicing. I am able to say this as far more than a personal idea, for, having received the two stately tomes in Mexico, and having shown them to a number of leading museum men, collectors, and artists of the country most concerned with the work, I can report that it called forth a very real enthusiasm from them all.

Naturally, this first response was due to the astounding wealth of beautifully made illustrations composing the whole of one of the volumes. But the text is so fine that I have confidence as to a continuing approval when other copies of the book arrive here, and the time needed for their study will permit my friends to speak definitively. That there will be differences of opinion—even heated differences —is only co be expected. For the love that the older American art calls forth (to revert once more to Nathan’s story of the rings) has a quality of passion in it. A fierce power resides in the sun, the mountains (even today bringing forth a new volcano), the rains, the vegetation, and the animals of this hemisphere; and the races of man here, in their long centuries of isolation from the rest of the world, responded to their environment with equal intensity. It is this that animates our modern research and our excitement over new finds of pivotal importance, which are continually being made.

Sr. Jimenez Moreno, of the National Museum of Mexico, has written that the years 1941 and 1942 may with justice claim to be decisive in the history of Mexican archaeology (for which last word I prefer to substitute “art”). With the wealth of new material pouring in, we need not be surprised if the present book has been unable to keep pace with the explorers. Thus, in the late spring of 1942, frescoes were discovered in the sacred city of Teotihuacan, so magnificent in conception and so perfect in technique as to change our whole conception of ancient American painting. Evidently the event came too late for inclusion in Mr. Kele-men’s book; but a discovery that one misses, though it was made only three years ago, is the glorious sculpture of Tula.

When the pyramid there was opened in 1940, a series of colossal figures appeared, in the exact condition in which they were buried to preserve them from desecration by the invading Aztecs. With them were also architectural sculptures which, by their identity with things in the temples of Yucatan, gave proof that it was indeed the Toltec people of Tula who brought new art to the land of the Mayas, where they sought refuge.

In the vast spaces from the northern frontier of the United States clear down to Chile, I shall permit myself to signalize only one other detail whose absence impresses me particularly. The record of culture in the Andean area would have been enriched if more than the most fragmentary representation of Peruvian sculpture had been included. Mr. Kele-men correctly offers under the heading of pottery the portrait heads of the region. But its expression in hard stones is a different matter. Rare as these are, there are enough of them in such a collection as that of Juan Larrea (now in Madrid), to prove that the genius of the South American people could succeed in a less facile material than clay, which was handled with consummate (and often excessive) skill.

Undoubtedly, one of the beneficent effects of the present book will be to stimulate acquaintance with works devoted to particular phases of ancient American art. There was the most urgent need for this general survey of the hemisphere as a whole (even omitting, as it does, the works of British Columbia and Alaska, possibly because they are later than the “medieval” period). But with the illustrations, the text, and the rich bibliography offered by Mr. Kelemen, only a very dull reader indeed would fail to be tempted, even irresistibly tempted, to go further.

Thus the very special beauty of the sculpture left by the North American Indians in Ohio, Florida, Alabama, and other places, which may be seen in these pages, will send many a man to the book in which, four years ago, George C. Vaillant gave us a splendid introduction to the ancestral art of our own country. Likewise, the person who feels the thrill of Tarascan art will want to see far more of it than is here, and will turn to Dr. Medioni’s book on the collection of Diego Rivera. Its unequalled wealth of material might well have caused its inclusion in the bibliography.

It was with awareness of using a word which many will consider debatable that I spoke, just before, of an Indian art as ancestral. Should this arouse disagreement, however, I shall be prepared to sustain my idea vigorously. We Americans are sons of our soil, and bear testimony to its character, one which has definitively modified our inheritance from Europe. In the countries to the south of the United States, Indian blood has an overwhelming share in the formation of the peoples, but even in the Anglo-Saxon part of America, the climate and the nature of the land have induced habits of life, delight in outdoor sports, vigor, enterprise, and a sense of freedom already quite different from those of our forbears in England, Holland, or Spain. Not for nothing do we take pride in calling ourselves Americans.

And so there is strong reason for care as to the interpretation of a statement in Mr. Kelemen’s book. He says: “It [medieval American art] was destroyed almost upon discovery, and only the most tenuous of living threads remain to bridge the gap for us across the centuries.” In certain ways, this is beyond dispute, particularly as regards the author’s purpose in making the affirmation. He is offering reason why this art is “so tardily being granted its deserved position in the history of human civilization,”–and our thanks go out to him again for the great impetus his work will afford to an easy and most pleasurable advance toward better understanding.

But how completely was the art destroyed? Obviously, when we still have pyramids twice the size of those of Egypt, cities like Monte Alban and Chichen-Itza, sculpture in tens of thousands of examples, and innumerable other evidences of the ancient peoples, the material destruction was only partial, and is to be noted chiefly in the matter of books, paintings, and objects of gold: in general, such works as antagonized the zeal for “conversion,” or excited the greed of the Europeans.

Yet even in the field of continuing production, the break with the past is far from complete. The art of the potter has never been lost in Arizona and New Mexico, and recent years have seen how a mere breath of opportunity was all that was needed to bring new life to the extraordinary gift for painting of the peoples there. In Mexico, Central I America, and South America, such survivals are far more numerous, and frequently of great importance.

It is, however, in the character and instinct of the present-day races of America that we note the most significant and living relationship with their ancestors. Underlying all such matters was the religion of the land, and this entered so deeply into Christianity (when the new faith received any real acceptance at all) that the Catholicism of Latin America is colored by the beliefs and even the ritual of the ancients of the soil. Besides speech (many of the old languages survive intact and are the only ones known by millions of people), there is the dance, whose movements, at times, are exactly those seen in the early sculpture and painting, and there are a thousand traditions of weaving, building, carving, and so forth, which have come down through the centuries with a vitality scarcely, if at all, diminished. It was for this reason that, in quoting Sr. Jimenez Moreno’s remark, I preferred to speak of art rather than archaeology.

It is as art that Mr. Kelemen treats his subject throughout his volumes, and it is not too much to hope that they will be a factor in the development of art in his adopted country. Bringing to us memories of the culture of his native Hungary (in telling of Dürer’s enthusiasm for the first Mexican art works to reach Europe, our author does not fail to remind us of the Hungarian descent of the great German painter), the book also bespeaks an unmistakable breadth of study among the other arts of Europe. The fact gives added value to this new testimony to the power, the beauty, and the continuing life of the art of America.


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