Mochica funerary art

On 17 May 2019, by Anne Foster

In the earliest centuries of our era, a pre-Inca culture developed in Peru that still surprises us today with the high quality of its arts, such as this funerary mask sold by Binoche and Giquello in Paris.

Northern Peru, Ancient Middle Mochica culture, 100-700 AD, wooden funerary mask with traces of red pigment, 20 x 26 x 13.5 cm.
Estimate: €200,000/300,000

Carved by one of the rivers flowing down from the Andes, the Moche Valley witnessed the blossoming of the Mochicas’ first achievements. A people without writing, they left not a chronicle of their history, but temples and tombs. These wonders point to a hierarchical society: lords and shamans ruled over craftsmen, servants and a large class of farmers. They gradually settled in other valleys, building an impressive road network in the mountains to connect them. Archaeologists are constantly discovering cities whose artifacts, especially in tombs that have not been plundered by looters, attest to architectural and aesthetic homogeneity. For example, in 2008 the tomb of the Lord of Ucupe was discovered at the archaeological site of Huaca el Pueblo. His regalia included a superb funerary mask made of metal, stones and shells.

An incredible artistic quality
This mask, from an American collection of pre-Columbian art soon to be presented, is less elaborate but features incredible artistic quality. It is a portrait of a lord or priest with a rounded forehead, round cheeks, a nose overhanging a mouth with pulpy, well-shaped lips and wide, now-empty eye sockets. The fixed gaze when shells and stones were still in them must have had a striking effect. As it has come down to us, the mask exudes serenity. More cannot be known because it has been separated from the vessels accompanying the remains and from the bones from animal or human sacrifices that might have informed us about his status. For example, it is unknown whether this was a major figure who belonged to the Northern or Southern Mochica: each group had its own hierarchical levels linked to religious rites and complex iconography. Mochica culture was contemporaneous with the Mesoamerican Maya. The Huaca del Sol stepped pyramid in Moche is the largest adobe building in pre-Hispanic Peru. Its wall frescoes feature figures wearing the ornaments found in the tombs.

Overview (Pre-sale)

The world of a New York collector

From fearsome divinities and ceremonial masks to everyday figures, these pre-Columbian works up for sale at Drouot come from a major New York collection.

With this sale, Alexandre Giquello continues with the dispersion of part of the collection of Central and South American civilisations assembled by a New York art lover who died thirteen years ago. The group brought together by this thoughtful mind, who consulted several specialists, included both painting and the arts of Oceania, Africa and the Far East. But as we can see from this sale, his fascination with pre-Columbian cultures was particularly marked by a penchant for the Olmecs', which lasted from 1200 to 400 BC.

Olmec culture, Middle Pre-classic Mexico, 900-400 BC, small mask depicting a man-jaguar, green stone, h. 10 cm.Estimate: €50,000/60,000

Olmec culture, Middle Pre-classic Mexico, 900-400 BC, small mask depicting a man-jaguar, green stone, h. 10 cm.
Estimate: €50,000/60,000

A ferocious pedigree
“The pre-Columbian market is still far more open than that of the African arts. So for a few thousand euros, it's possible to obtain both significant and less prominent pieces, all chosen with meticulous care,” says expert Jacques Blazy, who has made aesthetic sensibility one of the chief criteria for this sale of objects. Several pieces belonged to various outstanding East Coast collections before appearing in major museums, including the New York Metropolitan. A dozen were among the 250 pieces in the yardstick exhibition on the Olmec culture staged in 1995 by Michael D. Coe at the Princeton University Art Museum, also shown at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. “All the provenances are documented and indicated in the  catalogue,” says Jacques Blazy, who also stresses that the embassies of the countries concerned – and, as an extra precaution, the OCBC (central office for the fight against the trafficking of cultural goods) – have received prior notice of this selection. Alexandre Giquello has already sold two groups of pieces from the collection, which garnered a splendid €5.5 M. The eighty lots in the sale today illustrate the beauty of form (and often ferocity) of figures that people an extraordinarily complex cosmogony.

But the sale opens with some less daunting representations – for example, this Mochica funerary mask from northern Peru, dating from the “early intermediate” period (100-700 AD). This major red-coloured piece (€200,000/300,000) once belonged to Dr Guy Dulon's collection, sold by Sotheby’s in 1992 in New York, and is one of the few wooden pieces to have come down to us from such an ancient period.
 

Xochipala culture, Middle Pre-classic Mexico, 1200-900 BC, large feline-shaped vessel, grey-dark green serpentine, h. 30.5, l. 87 cm. Estimate: €250,0

Xochipala culture, Middle Pre-classic Mexico, 1200-900 BC, large feline-shaped vessel, grey-dark green serpentine, h. 30.5, l. 87 cm.
Estimate: €250,000/300,000

Jaguars and musicians
The Olmec civilisation is represented by a green-black steatite kneeling figurine of the rain god Chac from the Izapa culture, dating from the proto-classic  period (300 BC-300 AD), published in many reference books (€20,000/25,000), and a green serpentine mask (900-400 BC) from the State of Guerrero (€70,000/90,000). An even more expressive piece from the same period is this other mask showing a man changing into a jaguar (€50,000/60,000), while this grimacing figure in serpentine from Guerrero, again from the same period, is extraordinary for its size – nearly half a metre (€200,000/300,000). The big cat, which was particularly feared, appears in a more naïve form in a vessel carved from serpentine (pre-classical or middle period, 1200-900 BC), which is singularly large: almost 90 cm long (€250,000/300,000). This came from the Xochipala site in Guerrero. While it belonged to Ronald and Lyn Gilbert's New York collection, it was published by Michel Graulich and Lin Crocker-Deletaille in their book on previously undiscovered masterpieces of pre-Columbian art. It was probably used as a libation cup, perhaps for medicinal or psychotropic decoctions.
Lastly, highly representative of cultivated naturalism during the 7th to the 9th centuries in Jaina (named after an island that contained a Mayan religious and funerary centre), we find a couple representing the moon goddess and her companion (€100,000/120,000), exhibited and published several times in the past. They give the impression they are dancing. It is fairly rare to find couples among the figurines characteristic of this style. A Mayan vase (€60,000/80,000) has particularly rich iconography, which unfolds around a figure seated on a throne with musicians playing before him. There is an echo of this in a vase with a lid in the form of a tortoise (€10,000/12,000), as the animal's carapace was used as a drum, beaten by musicians with deer antlers.   
 

Simplified beauty
 
Colima culture, Western Mexico, proto-classic, 100 BC-250 AD, seated figure, ceramic with orange-brown slip, h. 33, l. 21 cm.Estimate: €30,000/35,000

Colima culture, Western Mexico, proto-classic, 100 BC-250 AD, seated figure, ceramic with orange-brown slip, h. 33, l. 21 cm.
Estimate: €30,000/35,000


One section of the sale seems highly original, in that it moves away from a cosmogony inhabited by a bestiary of cruel divinities halfway between men and animals – undoubtedly appreciated in the West for its expressionist aesthetic. In this more touching vein, fifteen pieces from western Mexico stand out, characterised by a movement that developed around small chiefdoms on the Pacific coast in the pre-classical period, classified by specialists as “village cultures”.  A long way from the major movements in civilisation, these slender handmade ceramic pieces, often in brownish-red slip, are devoted to figures of everyday life in forms that are both mannered and naturalistic. In the sale, particularly works from the Colima culture, we find a smiling shark, a frog, a shellfish and a snake embellishing a cup; also, depicted with the same realism, a hunchback, a priest carrying a bowl and a group representing a woman holding a calabash. This region, which covers ten or so states in Mexico, was “long perceived as a marginal zone” although it stood out for “statuary of astounding formal creativity”, with “supple forms” and a “jubilatory” character, wrote archaeologist Nicolas Latsanopoulos of the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes. These carefully polished figurines were placed at the bottom of subterranean tombs in the form of wells, which could be up to 20 metres deep, and contained one or more funerary chambers. Archaeologists see them as the nucleus of the Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit traditions – considering the latter as the most refined, with its more diversified and colourful representations.

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