Art review: Ancient American splendor is on display at the Frist

bourne-urnIn 1520, the mighty Aztec Empire suffered two mortal blows. The first was the murder of its Emperor Montezuma. More devastating was an outbreak of smallpox, which swept through the empire’s capital city like a wildfire. Hernán Cortés and other Spanish conquistadors brought the disease with them from the Old World, and the peoples of the New World had no resistance. Smallpox, typhus and other epidemics eventually wiped out nearly 90 percent of the native population.

bourne-snuff“Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection,” on exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through June 23, includes nearly 3,000 years’ worth of artworks and artifacts from the pre-Columbian New World. The oldest pieces in the exhibit are earthenware statues that the Olmec – Mexico’s first major civilization – may have created as early as 1,200 B.C. The newest works were made no later than the infamous year 1520 A.D.  Ancient American art seemingly came to a screeching halt in that year, like the hands of a clock frozen at the moment of an explosion.

Until the mid-20th century, few people considered the artifacts of Mesoamerica, Central America and Andean South America to be fine art of the first rank. The Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were among the first to recognize its true aesthetic value. (Rivera and Kahlo’s art, by the way, is on display at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, which is reviewed here by our partner ArtsATL). Another was a young American adventurer named John Bourne.

bourne-seatedIn 1945, a then 19-year-old Bourne traveled to the jungles of Mexico, where he reportedly became one of the first non-Mayans to see the ruins of Bonampak. The site is most famous today for the fabulous murals of Mayan rituals and military victories that cover the walls of a royal building.

Bourne was mesmerized by this culture and became a life-long collector of Ancient American art. In 2009, he agreed to donate some 300 pieces from his collection along with a $4 million bequest from his estate to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The Frist now has nearly 125 pieces from that collection – statues, decorative vessels, jewelry and precious-metal work – on display in its upper gallery.

Most of the objects underscore a rich history of ceremonial, political and religious practices. Ancient American artists gave proper due to the gods of fertility and rain, embossing their images on exquisite earthenware urns and vessels. The transformative nature of death was also a preoccupation of these artists. Ritual sacrifice was a common theme.

One of the most visually arresting works in the exhibit is the “K’iche Mayan Burial Urn” from the Southern Highlands of Guatemala. This large pot – measuring about two-feet across – dates from around 550 to 850 A.D. and features the sculpted, fearsome head of a maze god. The painted sculpture is remarkable for its fine details, which include this god’s elaborate headdress.

bourne-pendentThe virtuoso skill with which ancient Americans worked with jadeite is enough to boggle the mind. Surely, the Olmec artist who carved the extraordinary – and tiny – “Maskette Pendant” out of green glass didn’t use a jeweler’s eye loupe nearly 3,000 years ago. Yet the level of precision in the design is breathtaking. The same is true of the much later Mayan “Figural Pendant” from 250 to 450 A.D.

The degree of realism in many of the sculptures was equally impressive. A “Dancing Figure Whistle” made in Mexico between 300 B.C. and 200 A.D. is only about nine inches high. Still, the figure’s garments, boots, earrings and necklace where sculpted with extraordinary care. You can even see woven patterns in the figure’s headdress.

The number of sculptures depicting nobles and warriors shows that armed conflict was a regular feature of ancient American life. Moreover, the artwork proves that the fate of prisoners of war was always the same – death by ritual sacrifice. One sculpture shows a “Warrior Figure” (about 600 to 900 A.D.) with ropes tied around his neck. The bondage is a sure sign that he is about to be sacrificed.

bourne-dog“Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas” includes various depictions of dogs. The Aztecs associated dogs with the god Xoloti, the deity of lightning and death. Dogs were seen as necessary guides in the spirit world.

bourne-effigyHistory records that the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro required the captured Inca Emperor Atahualpa to pay a ransom in gold that filled a room 22-feet long by 17-feet wide to a height of 8 feet. (The emperor paid his ransom, but Pizarro killed him anyway). It comes as no surprise, then, that the ancient Americans were expert gold and silversmiths.

The exhibit includes an impressive display of gold and silver chalices – ancient Americans used precious metals for functional as well as decorative arts. One of the most stunning examples of the latter category is a “Human Effigy Pendant” fashioned of gold alloy. The piece comes from the aptly named “Rich Coast” of Costa Rica.

Interestingly, the exhibit includes extensive reporting on the Walters Art Museum’s conservation process. In fact, the Frist Center’s online audio tour is completely devoted to those efforts. We learn that some items have undergone art restoration. Others have not been conclusively authenticated. Given the relative ease with which national treasures can sometimes end up on the high-end antiquities market, such transparency is obviously necessary.

Image Credits

Burial Urn, K’iché Maya, Southern Highlands, Guatemala, Late Classic Period, 550–850 CE, Earthenware, post-fire paint, 21 7/8 x 26 1/2 x 22 3/4 in.,The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, gift of John Bourne, 2009 (2009.20.41), Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Snuff Tray, JamaCoaque, Ecuador, 300 BCE–600 CE, Earthenware, 6 1/8 x 4 1/2 x 7 3/8 in., The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, promised gift of John Bourne (TL.2009.20.126), Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Seated Figure, Colima, Mexico, 100 BCE–300 CE, Burnished earthenware, 16 1/2 x 7 5/8 x 8 3/4 in., The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, promised gift of John Bourne (TL.2009.20.212), Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Figural Pendant, Maya, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, or Honduras, Early Classic Period, 250–450 CE, Jadeite, 2 5/8 x 1 7/8 x 1/2 in., The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, promised gift of John Bourne (TL.2009.20.263), Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Howling Dog Effigy, Jalisco, Mexico, 300 BCE–200 CE, Earthenware, slip paint, 9 3/8 x 12 5/8 x 5 3/4 in., The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, promised gift of John Bourne (TL.2009.20.148), Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Human Effigy Pendant, Diquís, Costa Rica, Late Period IV–Period VI, 400–1500 CE, Cast gold alloy, 5 3/4 x 4 1/8 x 1 1/4 in., The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, promised gift of John Bourne (TL.2009.20.74), Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection, runs through June 23 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 1 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 adults, $7 college students and seniors and free for visitors 18 and younger. For more information go to

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.