BILBAO, SPAIN.- The Guggenheim Bilbao presents today The Aztec Empire, on view through 18 September, 2005. The museum examines the extraordinary civilization of the Aztecs through more than 440 works drawn from public and private collections, including archaeological finds of the last decade never before seen outside Mexico. The Aztec Empire is the most comprehensive survey of the art and culture of the Aztecs ever assembled, and the first major exhibition devoted to the subject in the U.S. in more than 20 years.
The Aztec Empire is organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in collaboration with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA) and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). Guest curator is Felipe Solís Olguín, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, co-curator of the large-scale survey Aztecs at the Royal Academy in London in 2003, and one of the world's foremost authorities on Aztec art and culture. Exhibition design is by Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos + J. Meejin Yoon.
The Aztec Empire begins by painting a vivid and immediately recognizable portrait of daily life in a thriving metropolis and seat of power. In an early section sculptures in stone or fired clay and stucco depict the appearance of an urbane people in an ascendant society in a variety of poses, whether standing, seated, kneeling, crouching, holding a cacao pod, or bearing an elaborate headdress. Some are idealized, such as fertility figures or figures of warriors; others, like a stone sculpture of a hunchback (ca. 1500), savor the particular.
Visitors then encounter a bestiary of meticulously observed depictions of the flora and fauna of Mesoamerica from the 13th to 16th centuries, featuring eagle, coyote, jaguar, monkey, dog, rabbit, frog, snake, locust, and a larger-than-life-size, realistically depicted carved cornelian grasshopper (ca. 1500) that seems poised to jump.
The Aztec Empire provides a broader chronological and cultural context for the Aztecs' achievements than earlier exhibitions, whose focus has been the representation of Aztec society at its peak. An early section focuses on the ways in which the Aztecs adopted and transformed the forms and symbols of their ancestors, among them the Olmecs, Toltecs, and the people of Teotihuacan. A great treasure from the latter period is a highlight of the exhibition: a stone and turquoise mask of a human face, with eyes, joined eyebrows, facial symbols, nose ring, and necklace inlaid with shell and obsidian (ca. 450). Among the works representing the cultures of the peoples who surrounded the Aztecs, whether as defeated subjects or enemies, are never-before-exhibited objects from the Huastec civilization (ca. 12001521), including a polychrome anthropomorphic pot portraying the face of a man with horizontal bands of paint along his cheekbones, bulging eyes, and rows of pointed teeth.
The Aztec Empire examines the Aztecs' symbolic interpretation of the cosmos and the natural world; gods, rites, and ceremonies; and use of war and human sacrifice in service to an extraordinarily prescribed religion. Many of the featured objects will help the viewer understand the symbolism of the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), which according to the foundation myths of the Aztecs represented the place where its patron god, Huitzilopochtli, was born. This symbolic building, designed as a stepped pyramidal platform, one of 78 in the sacred precinct, has yielded many treasures since it was discovered by accident in the heart of downtown Mexico City in 1978. One of the most important artifacts in the exhibition was uncovered only a decade ago: a nearly six-foot-tall fired-clay figure of the god of death and darkness, Mictlantecuhtli (ca. 1480), who is shown stripped of half his flesh, with enormous claws for hands, and a head pocked with holes where actual hair would have been threaded. Another icon is the life-sized eagle warrior (ca. 144069), one of two monumental polychrome clay figures found in a room in the House of Eagles at the Templo Mayor that are believed to represent the sun at dawn. A ritual offering in the form of a greenstone canoe, less than a foot long, accompanied by a cluster of small fishes carved in mother of pearl, is among the never-before-exhibited artifacts from Templo Mayor to be featured.
The Aztec Empire brings together many different representations of the Aztec pantheon, including large-scale stone sculptures thought to have been inspired by the huge monoliths of Teotihuacan and Tula, which the Aztecs would have looked to in searching for their own past. Also featured are stone discs, stone and fired-clay tablets, and a palm-size greenstone pendant depicting the god of fire, Xiuhtecuhtli (ca. 1500). The pendant is particularly precious, for it was probably reserved for use by an Aztec ruler.
The Aztec Empire gives viewers a sense of the life of the Aztec nobility and that of commoners, merchants, and artisans, through jewelry, body ornaments, musical instruments, household objects, and other works made of gold, silver, turquoise, bone, shell, and feathers. Such artifacts as earspools, nose ornaments, and the handle of a flyswatter not only reflect daily life, but show that the Aztecs, formidable stonemasons and ceramicists, were masters at fashioning objects from a variety of materials.
The exhibition covers Aztec civilization through the time of the European conquest, with objects that reflect the early states of the Spanish campaign to convert the indigenous peoples of Mexico to Christianity and the eventual devastation of Aztec society. Among these is a tour-de-force example of feather weaving on bark, a chalice cover (ca. 1540) designed with a circular, wave-like pattern believed to symbolize holy water transmitting the word of God.