SCULPTURE / Now figure it this way: Dalya Alberge reports on the rehabilitation of the once rubbished artefacts of Ancient Mexico . . . . . .and traces their influence on twentieth-century artists Henry Moore, Frida Kahlo and Peter Randall-Page

The scaly surface of an ancient Mexican sculpted figure of Xipe-Totec, a fertility god, is supposed to suggest the flayed skin of a sacrificial human victim. (A reminder, it seems, of the ceremonies in which priests honouring the gods wore the skins like capes until they tightened and burst in the sun.) Such gory facts tend to overwhelm any artistic considerations, but the figure is one of many included in a major exhibition on Ancient Mexican art - opening at the Hayward Gallery, London, on 17 September. Not surprisingly the organisers are playing down the civilisation's barbarism.

It is the sculptural qualities of some 170 works in stone, jade and clay made by Olmec, Aztec, Toltec and Mayan craftsmen between 1000 BC and AD 1500, that has determined inclusion at the Hayward. This is an important show - the first to focus on the beauty of each piece, rather than its anthropological, historical and archaeological interest.

No less a master than Durer would have been surprised that it has taken so long. In 1521, he wrote of seeing 'the things which were brought to the King (Charles V of Spain) from the New Golden Land . . . I have never seen in all my days that which so rejoiced my heart . . . I marvelled over the subtle ingenuity of the men in these distant lands.'

For the Conquistadors, such artefacts were pagan and idolatrous. Contemporary reports describe the melting-down of life-size gold figures to take home as ingots. Although Mexican Independence in 1823 prompted an interest in Mexican antiquities, they were seen as curiosities and lumped together with relics from other primitive cultures.

It was not until this century - when the aesthetic concepts of representation and beauty were redefined - that artists once again marvelled at the skill of the pre-Hispanic artist- craftsmen. Developments in Western art this century have refocused our eyes to appreciate the ancient craftsmen's subtle play with form and line, and an abstraction that conveys meaning rather than likeness. Visitors to the Hayward will no doubt be struck not only by the beauty - and often the humour - of so many of the objects, but also by how modern they look. Many of them would not be out of place in a contemporary art show.

Yet that is partly because so many artists this century have raided the so- called primitive cultures for ideas. Artists and architects - such as Henry Moore (see below), Leon Underwood and Frank Lloyd Wright - were inspired by African and Oceanic sculpture, but they were also mesmerised by the Ancient Mexican art. Giacometti too demonstrates the influences in his early sculptures. Epstein was an avid collector of pre-Colombian art: it might even be said that the bulging eyes, stylised fingers and flat head of his Primeval Gods are distinct echoes of those of Huehueteotl, god of fire, in the Hayward show.

But most of these ancient pieces were not intended as works of art. Most were produced in the name of religion. Whereas the European counterparts concentrated on one god, the pre-Hispanic artists dedicated themselves to hundreds of them (a 1552 estimate put it at 2,000). But it seems that the artists were confident of their skills: in the words of an Aztec song, ' . . .I carve a great stone, I paint thick wood, my song is in them. It will be spoken of when I have gone . . . My memory will live and my fame.'

With the Hayward's show, it seems that Quetsel-Koetl, god of craftsmen, has not forgotten them after all.

Hayward Gallery, London (071-928 8800) 17 Sept-6 Dec

Anyone interested in sculpture. . . couldn't fail to be fascinated by pre-Hispanic sculpture', says Peter Randall- Page, the British artist. Although his biomorphic sculptures derive their greatest inspiration from fossils and Egyptian antiquities, the British artist has looked too to the Aztec and Mayan artists. Since his teens, he has made regular trips to the Museum of Mankind. The great Aztec coiled serpent, composed into a solid form, made a particularly deep impression on him. The ancient Mexicans saw the serpent as a mysterious and fearsome beast, embodying all the elements of nature.

The Hayward Gallery show has one of these stone serpents, a rather serene-looking reptile knotted into an oval shape (see left): its finely-polished texture and solid form can be compared to a number of Randall-Page's organic sculptures. (See Font, right, on show at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol until 4 Oct).

Randall-Page says that like the pre-Hispanic artists, he carves the entire surface of a composition - even underneath it. He believes that his technique of 'wearing away' a stone's surface is similar to that used the ancient Mexicans: he also uses a hammer like a meat tenderizer, to file abrasive stone. 'Because they didn't have chisels which could cut hard stone,' he says, they must have used a similar process of eroding the material in a controlled manner.'

Frida Kahlo's My Nurse and I (left) is a self-portrait. The painting, which reflects the inspiration from both pre-Hispanic and Christian cultures, is an unsettling Madonna and Child composition, with a depiction of the artist herself suckling at the breast. Kahlo has concealed the nurse's face with an Olmec mask (right, believed to date from 1200 to 800BC). It is among the Hayward exhibits on loan from the British Museum; the rest of the objects come from Mexico.

Anti-colonialist sentiments led Mexican artists like Kahlo and Diego Rivera to glorify the pre-Hispanic past. A 1922 artists' manifesto proclaimed that 'the art of the Mexican people is the most wholesome spiritual expression in the world'.

Kahlo regarded My Nurse and I as one of her best paintings. Hayden Herrera, in the 1991 study of Kahlo's paintings compares the ducts and glands of the nurse's left breast to the plant patterns that decorate breasts in pre-Columbian sculptures. The straggly long black hair and eyebrows of both the wet nurse and the baby are features of the artist herself.

The strange combination of human and animal characteristics in Olmec art - with figures of jaguars and women - would have particularly appealed to Kahlo's bizarre imagination. Little is known about the BM mask: it was bequeathed to the collection by a 19th-century explorer. Iain Mackay, a curator in the British Museum's ethnography department, is not entirely convinced that it is an Olmec mask: although it has strong Olmec features - notably the pouting mouth, thick lips and baby face - the ears suggest a later civilisation.

One of the greatest inspirations for Henry Moore's reclining figures, such as his 1929 sculpture (above right) at Leeds City Art Gallery, was the Chac Mool. The Hayward's (above left) belongs to the Tarascan culture and is dated Late Post-Classic, AD 900-1521.

Chac Mools, warriors or messengers who carried offerings to the sun god, were usually reclining human figures with raised heads. Tarascan religion revolved around the sun, and the plate or vessel often seen balanced upon the Chac Mool's stomach would have held ritualistic offerings - perhaps a heart torn from the latest human victim as the divine sustenance for the god.

From the 1920s, Moore regularly visited the British Museum. Apart from the Egyptian, Cycladic and Greek sculpture, the Mexican collection exerted a deep impression. 'I liked this active, physical side of sculpture,' he said. 'Its 'stoniness', by which I mean its truth to the material, its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness . . . make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture.'

In his 1982 study of Moore's carvings, Terry Friedman of the Leeds Gallery draws parallels between Moore and Chac Mools in the use of a rectangular base, which defines the figure's cubicity, the block-shaped protuberance of the side of the head and the turning of the head away from the main axis of the body.

Moore talked of the impression made on him by 'the simple, monumental grandeur' of Aztec carvings. 'It has a massive weightiness which you feel is indestructible, and which is so true to the nature of stone.' His BM visits also inspired an interest in the ancient Mexican masks. 'Masks,' he wrote, 'isolate the facial expression, enabling you to concentrate on the face alone.'

Taking the example of his 1924 mask, he described wanting 'to give the eyes tremendous penetration and to make them stare, because it is the eyes which most easily express human emotion. In other masks, I used the asymmetrical principle in which one eye is quite different from the other, and the mouth is at an angle bringing back the balance. I had noticed this in some of the Mexican masks, and I began to find it in reality in all faces.'

(Photograph omitted)

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