Quetzalcoatl at LACMA

LACMA has opened its second great archeological exhibition in the Resnick Pavilion, “Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico.” Geographically it overlaps the 2010 Olmec show; chronologically it’s a couple of millennia later, from about 1000 to 1600. As with the previous show, it has scores of major loans from Mexican museums. One coup is the newly excavated Mayan figure of Quetzalcoatl’s half-dog brother, Xolotl (top). It alone is reason to see the show.

Quetzalcoatl was the human incarnation of a god visualized as a feathered serpent (one greenstone representation at right). He became the patron deity of art-rich kingdoms to the south of the Aztecs. Their power is demonstrated by a pair of monumental legs at the show’s entrance. These were part of a colossal figure that would have pushed through the sawtooth roof of the Resnick Pavilion and disputed Michael Govan’s title as the maven of monoliths.

The objects range from monumental sculpture to ceramics, jewelry, illuminated manuscripts, and textiles. For the uninitiated, the ceramic effigy vessels are a good place to start. Many are cute animals, a universal language in ceramics as well as Youtube. Below are two partly human examples. The mugging face at left recalls the folk art face jugs of the Carolinas. The one at right, of a human swallowed by a serpentine monster, is like Italian Mannerism but earlier.

One of the finer ceramic effigies is a new LACMA acquisition. It’s a subtly modeled man contemplating a hangover, or maybe the end of the world. It’s one of several 2010 gifts of Camilla Chandler Frost debuting here.

Jewelry was especially inventive. The most contemporary-looking piece is a pair of obsidian earflares. Suspended within the obsidian spools are gold and greenstone needles. How did they do that? The obsidian spool’s interior is the most transparent and flawless rock crystal, cut flush with spools to be invisible. The sentiment is pure Elsa Schiaparelli.

The world of Quetzalcoatl had a courtly “International Style” — the name echoing the near-contemporary one in Europe. The Toltec capital of Cholula became the Rome of Mesoamerica, a religious and trade center that was essential stop on the grand tour. High-quality works were made for high-net-worth royals to facilitate diplomacy and advantageous marriages. An example is the Rain God Vessel from the Kimbell Art Museum, left.

A display case near the exit contains a surprising history lesson. It turns out that the Nahua, Mixtec, and Zapotec influence extended northward to Tennessee and Oklahoma. The influencing probably went both ways. Metal casting appeared north of the Rio Grande before it did south of it. Native North American material is often slighted in art museum collections, and objects from this early period are especially rare.

Below is an Engraved Gorget with Pair of Dancers in the amusingly named “Spaghetti Style” of early first-millenium Tennessee. Cut from a sea shell—precious stuff in Precolumbian Tennessee—it’s half Carroll Dunham, half Matt Groening. Cartoon postmodernism would have been unthinkable in Romanesque Europe or Song China. Why aren’t America’s big art museums falling over themselves to acquire this sort of material?


The show’s parting thought is that Quetzalcoatl lives on in popular art and culture. It misses however Quetzalcoatl’s substantial afterlife in cinema and TV. Witness Stephen Colbert’s beef with Quetzalcoatl. Over the years, Quetzalcoatl has also been the unlikely subject of a string of grade-Z horror films, starting with The Flying Serpent (1946).

In film Quetzalcoatl is usually featherless and is basically a flying Godzilla. Though impious, these films are not without a political subtext. Aztlan wreaks revenge on the modern and the Western (turning the tables on the conquistadors, our weapons are useless against it). Below is the trailer for Q: The Winged Serpent (1980). Stunt casting doesn’t get better than this: David Carradine, Richard Roundtree—and Quetzalcoatl!

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