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A living venue for cultural crossroads.

Standing at the doorway to the Denver Art Museum's Center of Latin American Art and Archeology, one is surrounded by crisp rows of contemporary glass cases filled with pre-Columbian sculpture, pottery, stone and tools. The thousands of objects represent 83 pre-Columbian cultures of Central and Latin America; each is identified with a short description, in both English and Spanish, that links it to its culture. "Our collection of indigenous art of the Americas is internationally significant, yet until now it has been one of the great unknown collections of the world," says Gordon McEwan, curator of the museum's pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial collections, all aspects of which are presented bilingually.

February, 1993, marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Denver Art Museum with the completion of a $9 million remodelling and reinstallation project of two entire floors. The newly opened galleries house the first comprehensive display of the arts of South and Central America from before and after the European encounter. "Historically, we have collected in such fields as Native American and Spanish Colonial art--areas that are only now beginning to receive the scholarly and public attention they merit," says Frederick R. Mayer, chairman of the museum. "Our holdings in these fields are now the most important in the country." The museum has one of the largest collections in Central American material.

For the first time, the museum is able to exhibit all 5,000 of its pre-Columbian and Colonial pieces. Approximately 200 of the most delicate are highlighted in the Selected Works gallery. Pottery and priceless gold jewelry are displayed in easily viewed cases while many stone statues, urns, metates, and spheres are out in the open, giving visitors an arresting first-hand encounter. The remaining 4800 items are displayed in the Study gallery, which is open to both scholars and novices. "If a scholar is researching, for instance, Costa Rican jade, this is the place to come," says McEwan. "But we're encouraging research at every level, including casual inquiry by the general public. We're reaching out to all Americans. The international response has already been overwhelming. On our opening weekend last February, I met five Chileans, two Argentineans, and twenty-five Peruvians." When visitors see something that catches their interest in the Selected Works gallery, they can go right into the Study gallery and find a dozen other examples from as many different cultures. It is literally an encyclopedic display.

Although not the first to utilize what is known as "open storage," the Denver Art Museum is the first to combine open storage with a study gallery. They are hoping to redefine the ways in which individuals interact with art in a museum through innovative initiatives such as setting live, in-gallery interpretive programming, extended object labelling, audio-visual programs installed around gallery perimeters, and various "library" areas which encourage the reading of extensive resource materials, including bilingual children's books. "The challenge," says curator McEwan, "was to display 5,000 objects while at the same time allowing for an aesthetic, meaningful experience."

Frederick Lange, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, heads the Center of Latin American Art and Archeology, the research arm of the department newly headquartered at the museum. Inga Calvin, an expert on Mayan glyphs, is program officer. Each year, the center sponsors an international symposium, with academics from many countries convening for both public and private sessions over a three to four-day period. This years symposium, scheduled for September, focuses on Spanish Colonial Art. The 1994 session will examine stylistic parallels between Meso-American Mayan and Peruvian Moche cultures. A published volume summarizes each symposium.

Among the 83 cultures represented is Tiahuanaco, a ceremonial culture on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. At one time, up to 40,000 people lived at this site on the chilly altiplano. Another culture whose development is shrouded in mystery is the Ecuadoran Valdivia group, which thrived around 3,000 B.C. Scholars debate how its complex ceramics developed: were skills imported from the Far East or the Amazon Basin, or did the Valdivians develop pottery skills on their own? There are also examples of pieces from the Wari empire which flourished in Peru from 540 to 900 A.D., preceding the Inca civilization. This culture is the specialty of curator McEwan, who plans to continue on-site work on the Wari this summer. "The museum is committed to only acquiring works through legal channels," says McEwan. "Everything we have has been in the collection for years. We'd rather stop collecting altogether than violate the rules concerning antiquities leaving their country of origin."

Some of the pieces in the Selected Works gallery speak so directly to viewers that labels are almost unnecessary. One stone statue clearly depicts a captive in the prime of his life. Executed hundreds of years ago, the Costa Rican statue shows a man with hands bound tightly above his head. Around his waist six lengths of freshly twined rope cut into his flesh. Given his superb physique, he could have been a warrior captured during a skirmish. Or, maybe he was one of many men condemned to be offered as a tribute by a subjugated tribe.

Other pieces cause us to reflect on the cultures that created them along with their many battles and unknown gods. A rare urn depicting a seated warrior holding a shield is the largest, most complete extant ceramic sculpture from the Popayan culture of Colombia. There is also the Zumpango Baby, a piece that is at least 3,000 years old from the Olmec culture. Representing a mysterious divinity whose lineage is part human and part feline, this artifact is the only illustrated example of the god known to have survived intact. And then there is the large stone statue, seen immediately upon entering the museum, which intimately depicts a man carrying a child on his back.

Many pieces were created as tributes to gods-kings and thus were embellished with symbols of power. For example, two large Costa Rican metates are carved in the form of a jaguar. But a terra-cotta figurine, found near Veracruz, Mexico, is a rare, realistic rendering of a seated woman.

The museum's collection includes cases filled with magnificent gold pieces including Costa Rican earspools, a large collar, cuffs and headband. An eloquent testimony to the wealth of the Inca rulers is a complete set of ten gold glove fingertips modeled as birds. Yet, the simplest pottery can also be the most captivating as in a small Costa Rican bowl decorated with an almost child-like representation of the pre-Columbian universe.

McEwan emphasizes that the connections and contrasts of the art from the Old and New Worlds are the point of the entire gallery. "This is the only museum making the connection between pre-Columbian and what happened next. Everyone else shows Colonial art in context with European collections. We're the only ones trying to actively make a connection between what happened: when, where, and why."

At the transition point in the gallery, one looks across elaborately painted pre-Columbian figurines towards a towering Mexican statue of King Ferdinand. Behind the statue is a wall hung with colorful portraits of Inca rulers. Showing this continuity of Latin American cultures from 3,000 B.C. to the end of the colonial period in 1820 is what makes the installation so special.

The three jewel-toned Spanish Colonial chambers represent Mexico, Ecuador-Colombia, and Peru-Bolivia. They are hung with large, flamboyant paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and furnished with intricately inlaid furniture, some of it gilded with gold. But one of the most important pieces, transitionally, is one of the easiest to miss: a small seventeenth century Mexican framed work of St. Anthony. Pre-Columbian cultures made extensive use of feathers in their ceremonies, headdresses, and rituals and this piece shows that the tradition of working with feathers continued under Spanish rule. The artist of this St. Anthony rendering glued feathers onto paper, then mounted the paper onto copper.

In the Mexico Colonial room hangs one of the largest paintings on copper ever to be found. "When we cleaned this piece by Luis Juarez, we found the date 160-," says Ann Daley, adjunct curator of Spanish Colonial. "So we know it was finished before 1610. Although it shows a strong European influence, it was painted in Mexico by an Indian who would have been trained by a Spaniard." Another singular piece in the Mexico room is the nun's badge, an ornament peculiar to Mexico. With a tortoise shell backing and rim, this large, circular badge would have been worn by a nun when she took her vows. It portrays her family with their patron saint.

A side gallery next to the Spanish Colonial collection holds Hispanic folk art, illustrating that the Hispanic culture thrives to this date in New Mexico and southern Colorado. The most recent, a retablo of San Ysidro, was painted in 1992 by Charles Carrillo. Isolated geographically and intellectually from the mainstream of Catholicism, early settlers carved santos and painted retablos for their altars, using a naive folk-art style. Many Hispanic immigrants to the southwest worshiped with the Penitente Brotherhood, which literally identified with Christ's suffering by recreating the ceremonial drama of Holy Week. Although such practices were banned by Bishop Lamy in 1850, they continued to operate secretly in small villages. As a result, many of the images shown are of the suffering Christ.

"Hispanic religious art shows so much devotion and emotion," says Claire Brown, a museum docent who, after another year or so of language study, hopes to be one of the museum volunteers conducting tours in both Spanish and English. "There's such an incredible contrast between the poverty of New Mexico--where the saints were carved out of cottonwood limbs--and the dazzling gold leaf paintings from Cuzco."

The Denver Art Museum, founded in 1893, is housed in a building designed by Gio Ponti of Italy in collaboration with James Sudler Associates of Denver. Opened in 1971, it is Ponti's only architectural work for public use in the United States and is recognized as one of the most unusual and innovative museum buildings in the world. The design depends not on right angles but on acute, 45-degree angles; on many exterior views toward the Rocky Mountains; and on large open spaces. Ponti designed the museum so that people would attend to the art on exhibition.

And with the new installation of the pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial galleries, the museum is ready to receive visitors and scholars from throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Susan Kaye is a freelance writer residing in Aspen, Colorado. The Denver Art Museum is located on 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Colorado; their phone number is 303-640-2295.
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Title Annotation:Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
Author:Kaye, Susan
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1993
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