Late Mayan and Aztec Art

In Central America the well-ordered, relatively peaceful old Mayan empire passed away by 870. Before that time, the Itzas, a colonizing tribe of Mayans, founded the city of Chichen Itza in Yucatan. Other Mayans colonized Coba and Tulum near the eastern seacoast, perhaps going north toward the valley of Mexico, where they joined the growing Toltec culture which was emerging from the archaic there. Until about 1250, the new Mayans seem to have lived in an unproductive state. At that time there came a revival of culture at Chichen Itza, Mayapan, Uxmal, Labna, and other cities in Yucatan.

The Caracol, a circular astronomical observatory or temple, is one of hundreds of well-planned buildings from this second or late Mayan empire. The ziggurats of that period are much steeper than the early ones. They have high, combed stone cult-houses and suggest skyscraper cities with stepped-back buildings. In every way, the artistic productions of the late Mayans, as well as the Toltecs and the Aztecs who lived in the highlands of Mexico after A.D. 1300, are inferior to the work of the early Mayan empire. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Aztec temple sculpture and late Mayan wall painting. Both the late Mayans and the Aztecs painted codices telling the history of their people after the coming of the Spaniards. These approximate the cartoons of the later American comic strips or, if one believes in the continued influence of our indigenous art, the comic strips can be said to approximate late Mayan and Aztec painting. Central American influences carried by Mayan or Aztec colonists found their way up the Mississippi River valley, appearing in the pyramids of the Mound Builders.

Surveying indigenous American culture, one becomes convinced that Asiatic influences which may have contributed to its rapid flowering at the time of Christ were either so small, or the native American primitivism was so great, that humanistic characteristics soon became lost in a jungle of primitive geometric designs. In the later Mayan, Inca, and Aztec art any foreign influences had practically disappeared, transformed into designs only quasiOriental and distinctively American. An American style of architecture, sculpture, and painting had spread over the two continents when the Europeans arrived. To something like that style the Americans of the 20th century may be gradually changing all the European contributions made during the last 200 years. Our Gothic inheritance, vying with the humanist Classical tradition of simplicity and balance, may find in the quasi-Oriental Indian styles the form most appropriate to the expression of our American culture. If there be any tendency in this direction, it can be discovered in a brief survey of the' fortunes of the European styles on the American continents between 1700 and 1930.

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