Beautiful is complicated. Gorgeous sunset skies can be a product of atmospheric pollution. Blizzards of the kind that battered Buffalo were visual poetry to Monet. And that jewel-like magenta-winged bug I so admired in the garden last fall? Turns out to be a herbicidal terrorist.
As Monet’s snowstorms suggest, the idea, and ideal, of beauty in art comes with its own drawbacks. The majestic Elgin Marbles, emblems of democracy, crowned a Greek temple built by a slave-owning culture. Much of the Tudor luxe that recently delighted crowds at the Metropolitan Museum was created to make a ruthless colonial power-in-the-bud look fabulous.
On a stroll through the Met’s permanent collection galleries such complexities are always hard to ignore. They’re built into the global art encountered on all sides. And they percolate through the fantastically beautiful exhibition called “Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art.”
Just to have this show is a gift. We haven’t seen a Mesoamerican survey on this scale — more than 100 objects — for years. And it does valuable double duty. It showcases the museum’s pre-Columbian holdings, otherwise off-view during the renovation of the Michael C. Rockefeller wing. And it extends and deepens perspectives on Maya art through the addition of stellar loans from other institutions in the United States, Central America and Europe.
The Maya originated as a civilization around 1500 B.C. in an area covering all or parts of present-day Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. They developed a rigidly vertical class-based society living in rivalrous city-states and led by rulers who sought guidance from, and closely identified with, a pantheon of nature-based deities.
Culturally, the Maya invented a hieroglyphic writing system, still not fully deciphered. And in their elite art — which is the art that survives — they came up with distinctive architectural and graphic styles, which they put to both secular and religious use during the so-called Classic period (250-900 A.D.) on which the show focuses.
Three objects that introduce the exhibition, all dating from around the 8th century A.D., suggest the formal and expressive range of what lies ahead. One is a ceramic box, painted with a wraparound narrative depicting a supernatural summit chaired by a cigar-smoking, feline-eared deity-in-chief.
A text, spelled out in the equivalent of bubble-graffiti characters, suggests that the scene is a kind of Creation Day congress, with various gods convened to cook up a brand-new world. With features combining human, animal and vegetal, they’re a weird-looking cohort. An encounter with any of them on a dark night might trigger your fight-or-flight reflex. But seen here, at comic-strip scale, they radiate imaginative esprit, thanks to the wonderful linear style — shivery and filigree-fine — of an 8th century artist who signed his name.
The two other introductory items are large, columnar clay sculptures. Unearthly figures appear on them too, but as disembodied faces shaped in high relief. One has the look of a grinning death’s head. …….