There is something discomforting about summing up approximately 2,700 years of creativity in one exhibition. This is the challenge faced by the Walters Art Museum for the show “Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift.”
And yet this dilemma is nothing new.
Art from a history of cultures that flourished between modern-day Mexico and South America has long been grouped together, and even classified, under the problematic designation “pre- Columbian” — a Western-centric term referring to all art and peoples in the Americas before Christopher Columbus’s arrival.
Haven’t we moved past such generalizations?
The Walters is taking a healthy step in that direction, as seen in this exhibition, which celebrates and informs of stylistic differences with a careful arrangement of material by period and region. Curated by Dorie Reents-Budet, the show marks the museum’s relationship with New Mexico-based collector John Bourne, who has promised about 300 works, including the 135 in the exhibition, and has set aside a $4 million bequest to create a center for research and conservation at the Walters.
Such unprecedented contributions for the museum will position it as a rival to Dumbarton Oaks and its stunning Robert Woods Bliss Collection — turning the region into a hotbed for the study of the ancient Americas.
With the collection, the Walters also acquires Bourne’s unusual history.
In 1946, Bourne — then 19 years old — traveled to the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, lived among the isolated Lacandon Indians, and was the first non-Mayan to see the ruins of the ancient city Bonampak, which was later discovered to boast murals that have been called the Mayan Sistine Chapel (reproductions are included in the Walters exhibition). While in Mexico, Bourne also studied the Indians’ traditional chants and flute music, recording them with a machine the size of a typewriter that ran on gasoline. This music now welcomes visitors entering the show’s galleries.
His travel account, included in the catalogue, reads like a modern version of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” filled with tales of sickness and difficult travel, discoveries of hidden ruins, and even sexual exploits. From this history, Bourne emerges enraptured with a region whose history he would later consume through his collection.
Bourne continued to break ground in his collecting, buying artifacts while living in Los Angeles at a time when there was only a small group of elite collectors with such an acquired taste.
There were Hollywood types gobbling up the stuff, including Natalie Wood, Kirk Douglas and John Huston (who reportedly smuggled in part of his collection while filming “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” in Mexico). There were the trailblazing galleries, notably Bourne’s dealer Earl Stendahl, and the heavyweight collectors they sold to, such as Bliss, Walter and Louise Arensberg, and William Randolph Hearst.
Of course, modern artists such as Paul Gauguin, Andre Derain and Constantin Brancusi had already found inspiration in such forms. Henry Moore even wrote in 1941 of ancient Mexican art’s “astonishing variety and fertility of form invention . . . [making] it unsurpassed, in my opinion, by any other period of stone sculpture.”
Walking through the Walters exhibition, it is easy to see why these forms would hold such resonance.
Abstracted limbs stretch out in expressive movement in an infantile sculpture by the Olmecs (Mesoamerica’s first major culture) from 1200 to 900 B.C. The figure takes the pose of spiritual transformation with mouth ajar and upraised eyes, rife with vitality. In another display, a figure from Veracruz, Mexico, created about 1,500 years later holds an intense gaze, as he portrays a man of high status most likely destined for sacrifice and shrouded in elaborate textiles.
Such objects build a history of ceremonial, civic and religious practices. A large Mayan burial urn from Guatemala captures the deceased with the colorful features of K’inich Ajaw (the sun god), revealing the Mayan belief in the transformation of the dead into spiritual deities.
Gold items from Costa Rica, which lend credence to the name, “Rich Coast,” bestowed by Columbus when he arrived in 1502, include a pendant of a performer engaged in a shamanistic ritual carefully rendered in coiled and flattened details. And Peruvian objects expose everyday life, such as in the effigy of a curious young llama, reflecting the animal’s high status as both a beast of burden and a source of wool. The Andean principle of duality and balance is represented in its face, black on one side, white on the other.
The exhibition also includes extensive reporting on conservation efforts — what’s been broken, repainted and repaired, even when the authenticating process is inconclusive — and allusions to provenance research. This transparency is necessary at a time when repatriation has become a common experience for museums with ancient art. (The Walters even assisted in the return of a gold monkey bead in Bourne’s collection to Peru in December.)
It’s refreshing, and a sign that the proposed center will bring illumination and the objects in the collection will continue to both embrace their own diversity and play muse to patrons and artists alike.
O’Steen is a freelance writer.
is on view through May 20 at the Walters Art Museum. 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Call 410-547-9000 or visit