They were the hard men of central America, yet produced the most exquisite art. The Aztecs were a mass of contradictions, says Waldemar Januszczak
All this, although a little coarse in its detail, was essentially correct in its outlines. Montezuma, that most proto-Dubyan of Aztec emperors, is, indeed, reported to have insisted that they were “masters of the world”. But there is one immensely significant difference between the Aztecs and modern Americans that my angry Mexican friend did not take into account and, to my mind, should have. The Aztecs left behind exquisite golden chalices, with silver detailing and rock crystal inlays, with carved boxwood cores and profoundly blue internal decoration, made of hummingbird feathers, that shimmer behind the rock crystal and change colour when you walk around them. The Americans invented Mickey Mouse. When the god of art places these two monster empires on the scales of achievement, I know which will weigh more.
And so does the Royal Academy, which, after a string of disappointing shows, has forced itself back into the cultural front line with an almost brutally impactful tribute to the art of the Aztecs, the whoppingest such survey that anyone has ever assembled. There are 350 items on display. Most have never been allowed out of Mexico before. They range from tiny frogs, fashioned exquisitely out of gold and almost too small to see, to life-sized monster-gods, hewn out of volcanic rock, whom you can’t miss because they scowl at you so fiercely. At the end of the day, it’s the incredible gods not the delightful frogs who set the show’s tone.
Thus, your first encounter is with a life-sized Aztec deity called Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who’s been carved out of basalt, that darkest and crudest of volcanic rocks, and who dares you to pass him to get to the rest of the show. This basalt bouncer represents two gods simultaneously. One has taken a stern but essentially human form; the other is the birdlike protrusion that pushes out cancerously from the bottom of his face like a duck’s bill. There is nothing smooth or graceful about the transition from Ehecatl to Quetzalcoatl. Two gods have been hacked into one. It’s a telling beginning. What it does immediately is to signal the sheer unfamiliarity of the Aztec imagination. The belligerent mood of this looming deity, and the tangible unusualness of his appearance, promise a set of sights we are not used to. And so it proves. Over and over again.
Arranged around a very rough chronology, the show starts off by sampling from the various Mexican civilisations that were consumed in the frenzied enlargement of the Aztec empire — the Olmecs, Toltecs, Teotihuacans. It ends with the assimilation of the Aztecs themselves by Cortés and his conquistadors. Those who live by the Hoover die by the Hoover. This extraordinary rise and fall lasted for barely two centuries, from around 1320 to around 1520, in our calendar. I couldn’t begin to tell you how long it lasted in the calendar of the Aztecs, because the variable 52-year cycles, divided into 260-day years, that the show attempts to outline for us went far beyond my O-level maths.
Just as difficult is any kind of consistent understanding of their endless catalogue of deities. They had hundreds of gods, all doing different things. They had books, they had a profound architectural knowledge, they had immense artistic sophistication and elaborate multipart religious rituals. What they lacked was simplicity. This the Spanish conquest im-posed on them brutally and immediately. One god, one calendar, one cultural obliteration was the Spanish gift to the Aztecs.
That chalice I described earlier, the one with the hummingbird feather interior, pops up in the last room and was produced by Aztec craftsmen for the Spanish Catholic church. It’s one of a number of entirely unexpected Catholic adaptations — a Christ traced with parrot feathers, a chalice cover made of blue macaw plumage — with which the show unexpectedly climaxes. To their eternal credit, the Aztecs believed that the feathers of a hummingbird were more precious than gold. Their Spanish conquerors had no such delightful delusions.
Although it follows a rough chronology, the show manages also to incorporate a successful sequence of themed displays in its eventful journey. Thus, the second room looks at the Aztec treatment of the human figure; the third at their image of the natural world, and so on. This meandering from chronology to theme proves a nifty arrangement. The jumping about seems to suit the Aztec imagination. After the schematised archaicism of the first gallery, filled with Olmec and Toltec precursors, it’s exhilarating to wander into a parade of unexpectedly naturalistic nudes and faces. And even more of a pleasure to encounter a zoo of unlikely animal sculptures in the next room. A huge grass-hopper. A bigger flea. A giant rattlesnake. A drunken rabbit. The flea, it turns out, is a symbol of life because it sucks blood. It’s a typical piece of Aztec thinking. The reason they tore the hearts out of so many sacrificial victims on so many pyramid summits was to feed so many of their vulnerable gods, who were dying.
The Aztec world-view revolved around countless entwinings of these sorts of opposites. Whatever a thing was it seemed also to harbour within it its own antidote. Thus, a face could be split precisely in half like a pea pod: one half skeletal and standing for death, while the other is smiling and representing life. There’s a gallery at the centre of the show devoted to the gods of life that feels for all the world as if it has cast you among the fiercest sights of hell. It’s dominated by representations of Xipe Totec, the god of fertility, whose name means “our flayed lord”, because his usual attribute is the skin of his victims, which he wears flung around his shoulders. The bumps that cover it are actually realistic representations of the blobs of fat that apparently cling to the underside of flayed human skin. The Aztecs should know. How they loved their deadly dualities. They also produced gorgeous caskets with specially tight seals in which the flayed human skins could be stored to stop them smelling.
Predictably, like all recent blockbuster selections of treasures from ancient civilisations, the Aztec-fest aspires somewhat falsely on occasions to the condition of a lavish coffee-table book, with melodramatically spotlit plinths and hushed nocturnal setups. But the things on show are basically too damn spirited and unusual to succumb to this ersatz glossiness. There’s a warrior spirit to the art of the Aztecs, an angry hardness, which no amount of melodramatic spotlighting can soften.