David Littlejohn reports on a new exhibition about the Olmecs, or “Rubber People,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for the Wall Street Journal:
The name “Olmec” (or “rubber people”) was given to the oldest-known culture in the Americas almost 2,000 years after that culture had disappeared, and was accepted by scholars only in 1932. We have no idea what these people of what is now eastern Mexico, just inland from the Gulf at its southernmost point, called themselves. In fact, we know almost nothing about them, except that they seem to have endured from about 2,000 to 400 B.C.
What we do know, or think we know, comes almost entirely from the carved stone monuments and other artifacts that outlived them underground, because stone does not rot. The first—one of those colossal heads for which the Olmec are famous—was found by a Mexican farmer in 1850 and made known to the world in 1869. Not until 1942 was it publicly asserted that the Olmec was the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica (i.e., Mexico plus Central America).
Seventeen huge heads (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) have been discovered so far, in four sites within a 90-mile range, measuring from just under five feet to just over 11 feet tall and weighing (it is estimated) as much as 50 tons. One archaeologist has figured that it took 1,500 people three or four months to move an apppropriate boulder from its source in the mountains to its designated location. With presumably less effort, two of the smaller heads were hauled up from their homeland to Los Angeles, where they are the stars of the first major museum exhibition outside of Mexico devoted to the “people of Olman” and their art.
The two great heads are set up at the front and the back of the light-filled central space of the new Resnick Pavilion at LACMA, atop brown cubistic concrete platforms designed by Michael Heizer—who knows something about colossal sculpture. Although the curators claim to discern individual features in each of the heads, suggesting that each represents a different ruler, I see an obsessive urge in the Olmec sculptors to make each one alike—a bullet-shaped mound, topped by a tight cap, beneath which flaring brows; huge popping, lidded eyes; a squashed nose; and fat, down-drooping lips convey an image at once all-powerful and either snarling or sad. All sorts of things (including jaguars and African origins) have been read into these features. But they may represent nothing more than a simple way to create a human face by grinding stone against stone, creating features related to those of Mexican Indians today…
[continues in the Wall Street Journal]