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Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon

October 20, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments


[Photo: Daniel Giannoni]

A new exhibition, Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon, opened this week at the Seattle Art Museum. A description from the website:

Discover the mysteries of Machu Picchu, treasures from royal tombs and archeological wonders from one of the cradles of civilization in Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon. More than 3,000 years of artistic history reveal a land of rich complexity and startling beauty.

This unusually wide-ranging exhibition covers archeology, ancient rituals, royal ceremonies, conquest and colonization, the formation of the republic and the emergence of a new national identity. Experience the unfolding of culture through the creative achievements of Peru, from gold funerary masks to modern folk art.

The Seattle Art Museum is proud to be the only U.S. venue presenting this spectacular exhibition of more than 300 works, including national treasures never before seen outside of Peru.

And also this:

Discover Peru, land of hidden treasures, home to the first city in the Americas, a country of beauty and mystery. Travel back 3,000 years through the pottery, textiles, and stunning gold work of cultures that developed in isolation before the Inca ever built Machu Picchu. Trace the incorporation of indigenous motifs into European-style paintings and religious objects during colonization, and watch a new national identity emerge after independence.

Each work has a place in history, and together, they provide an expansive view of the deep and complex artistic heritage of Peru.

As is our custom, we went to the opening celebration, which took place Tuesday night. All four of the usual components were available: a program in the auditorium, food and drink, entertainment, and the exhibition itself. We arrived shortly before the 6:30 start time for the program. After grabbing drinks (water for me, white wine for Gail, no red wine allowed in the auditorium), we took our seats.

The program began at 6:45 with remarks by the board president, Winnie Stratton. She was followed by museum director Kim Rorschach, who played the essential role of listing all the sponsors. Then came Harold Forsyth, the Peruvian ambassador to the US, who offered a high-level speech about the significance of the show, the role of Peru, and US-Peru relations, the details of which completely escape me now. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters followed. He is currently a government official, the Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony and Cultural Industries, but also an archaeologist and scholar. Thus, he could talk knowledgeably about the significance of the exhibition itself, which he did, rather than operating at the platitudinous level.

The exhibition was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, whose director, Nathalie Bondil, spoke next. She was the star of the show, a charming, light-hearted Frenchwoman who quickly confessed her lack of expertise and ordered her Curator of Pre-Columbian Art (and exhibition organizer) Victor Pimentel to join her onstage. They proceeded to work through a series of slides of exhibition objects, with Nathalie giving some of the background then, on occasion, dragging Victor by the sleeve to the microphone to pinch hit.

At 7:50, we were released to see the objects for ourselves. Not having eaten dinner, we decided to join the long line in the lobby for food. The line moved fast, and soon we were at the buffet table, prepared by in-house restaurant Taste. A spicy potato dish, a spinach pastry of some sort, a bean dish, and steak skewers, all excellent. While we ate, we listened to a local Andean folk music group, Hanumanta, with the Sonia Porras Dance Company performing.

With such good food and festive atmosphere, it was easy to forget why we were at the museum. But there was the exhibition to see, and so we did. We made an unfortunate error, relying on habit to pass from the opening room to a second one in a clockwise direction, not realizing that this time the natural route was counter-clockwise. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings were evidence something was amiss, but maybe objects were grouped by medium, not chronologically. Plus, the exhibition showpiece—the forehead ornament featured at the top of the post—was in a neighboring space. (Forehead ornament with feline head and octopus tentacles ending in catfish heads, 100-800, Peruvian, Mochica, North Coast, possibly La Mina, gold, chrysocolla, shells, 11 1/4 x 16 5/16 x 1 3/4 in., Museo de la Nación, Lima.) So maybe there wasn’t a strict chronological order.

Off we went, room to room, evidence mounting that we were walking backwards. I should note that we weren’t alone in this choice, the people moving in both directions adding to the confusion. Well, no matter. We saw many extraordinary objects. And we can go counter-clockwise on our next visit.

What did we see? I’ll offer some examples from the website. You can go there to see and read more. (Click “Art”.)

First we have a feathered hanging from 700-1200: Peruvian, Huari, South Coast, possibly Rio Grande Valley, cotton, feathers, 25 7/8 × 85 1/16 in., The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It is “one of 90 identical works found in the 1940s in a burial cache on Peru’s south coast. The Inca also made offerings at this site, suggesting it was a sacred place in the landscape over a long period of time.”


[Photo: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Denis Farley]

Perhaps my biggest surprise was finding a wall of photos by Irving Penn.

In December 1948, after completing a photo shoot for Vogue in Lima, the fashion photographer, Irving Penn (1917–2009), did not immediately return to New York with his colleagues, but went to Cuzco, where he stayed for several days. He rented a local photographer’s studio.

“By incredible providence, there in the center of town was a daylight studio! A Victorian leftover, one broad wall of light to the north, a stone floor, a painted cloth backdrop—a dream come true. I hired the use of the studio for the next three days, sending the proprietor away to spend Christmas with his family, and set myself up as town photographer. When subjects arrived to be photographed they found me instead of him. Instead of them paying me, I paid them for posing, a very confusing affair.”

Here is one of the photos, “Cuzco: Three Sitting Men in Masks.”


[The Irving Penn Foundation, New York]

Going back in time, here’s the back of a litter, dated from 750-1375: Peruvian, Lambayeque, North Coast, wood, gold, silver, cinnabar, sulphurous copper, ammonia, shells, turquoise, feathers, 22 13/16 × 44 7/8 × 1 15/16 in., Museos “Oro del Perú” – “Armas del Mundo”.

While they lived, the rulers of ancient Peru traveled on litters, or platforms carried by servants. In death, their mummified bodies were also placed on litters, and carried to their tombs in great ceremonial parades. This remarkable backrest from a Lambayeque litter is inlaid with gold, silver, turquoise, cinnabar, shells, and feathers. The carving is an image of a funerary procession and features an audience of ancestors who await the leader in the afterlife.


[Photo: Joaquín Rubio]

Next, an altarpiece from around 1970 by Joaquín López Antay, Peruvian, 1897-1981: Painted wood, polychrome paste, 36 7/16 × 46 7/16 × 5 1/2 in., Colección Museo de Arte de Lima.

Retablos are small three-dimensional altars featuring tiny figures arranged in scenes, usually telling an important religious story. The first retablos were placed behind the altars of Catholic churches in Spain, and carried by soldiers worshipping far from home during the Crusades against non-Christians in the Near East, Northern Africa and Eastern Europe during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

In Peru, they were used to proselytize the native peoples during the colonial period. Peruvian folk artists then adopted the form to tell their own stories. While this retablo shows scenes from Catholic teachings on the top tiers, the lower tiers depict daily life in south-central Peru: the harvest of the prickly pear cactus, a celebration with music and dancing.


There’s an article in ARTnews from last March about the Montreal exhibition that has some excellent photos. I will close with one depicting an Inca noblewoman: Gran Nusta Mama Occollo, Cuzco, Peru, early 1800s, oil on canvas mounted on board, Denver Art Museum.


The exhibition closes January 5. If you can, see it.

Categories: Art, Museums
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