Teotihuacan was one of the great ancient cities of the Americas. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mexico’s most frequently visited ruin, it remains one of the Americas’ greatest mysteries.
About 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, Teotihuacan dates back as early as 200 B.C., reached its peak around 450 A.D. with a population that exceeded 100,000, and then began to decline. It was eventually sacked and burned by outside invaders in the sixth century.
Through July 15, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is presenting “City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan” in its Resnick Pavilion. It’s an amazing collection of beautiful, hand-carved, often mystical work. Some of the artifacts have never before been seen in the United States. And some objects have never been seen, period, since they were buried in a secret passageway between 100 A.D. and 250.
The objects — made of stone, ceramic, shell, obsidian, jade, marble and other materials — shed light on the culture, arts and traditions of a people who occupied what was once the biggest city in Mesoamerica.
“City and Cosmos” features new discoveries from 2003, when Mexican archaeologists discovered a tunnel underneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid (also known as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl). The passage, called “Tlalocan” by archaeologists, begins in the central plaza of the Ciudadela complex, and stretches to the east for approximately 337 feet. It ends below the heart of the pyramid. Buried inside was an incredible collection of objects noted for their complexity, quality and quantity.
Objects that stand out in the “Tlalocan” discovery include male and female “Standing Figure(s) with Necklace” (200-250) made of greenstone; large shell trumpets from 150-250; and delicately painted ceramic bowls and vessels (200-250).
The exhibition is organized in sections that correspond with the city’s main architectural complexes — the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, residential compounds, and the city’s edges and beyond.
In the heart of “City and Cosmos” are murals — some in large fragments, most with red paint and symbolic designs still decorating them. The surrounding galleries contain statues, masks, basins, vessels, stelas, figures and ceramic ornaments. It’s certainly a treasure trove of material; one yearns for more descriptive text connecting the objects to each other, and to the greater Teotihuacan culture.
The feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl looms large, with several stone sculptures, murals and ceramics bearing its powerful likeness. Yet, it seems more could be said about this crucial figure and deity, and its connections to life in Teotihuacan.
A version of this exhibition was on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, under the title “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.” The objects were selected by the show’s organizing curator, Matthew H. Robb, now chief curator at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, in consultation with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. The curator of the LACMA presentation is Megan E. O’Neil, associate curator of art of the ancient Americas at the museum.
“City and Cosmos” reveals Teotihuacan as a beautiful, painted and sculpted city, even more vivid and colorful than a visit to the graying ruins might lead one to believe. It was truly a “place where men become gods,” as the Aztecs named the city in their native Nahuatl. And it was a place where residents embraced their art and craft with religious zeal and seriousness.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is presenting “City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan” through July 15. LACMA is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. More information: www.lacma.org
Founder Louise Blouin