Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2023
Claudia Brittenham Unseen Art: Making, Vision, and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2023. 184 pp.; 114 color ills.; 13 b/w ills. $60.00 (9781477325964)

Surviving works of art created by Indigenous Mesoamerican artists seem to challenge paradigms of art history developed for the study of European traditions. Claudia Brittenham’s Unseen Art: Making, Vision, and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica tackles one of the paradoxes central to the study of ancient Mesoamerican material culture: works of art with restricted visibility. The works considered in this volume were meant to be seen briefly, or only by certain people, or for only certain moments in time. Brittenham’s premise is that understanding how such works operated allows us a new approach to questions of visibility, power, and inequality—and ultimately, “the modern project of looking” (9). Unseen Art investigates what it means to look, how looking is inextricably tied to questions of power, and how to move beyond visibility as a central project of art history.

To consider this issue, the author brings the reader through case studies from three different cultural groups: the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec. Central to this exploration is the author’s approach to seeing, which she conceptualizes as “an embodied, durational, and always political activity” (5). Using Maya and Aztec sources of information, Brittenham explains that for some Mesoamerican groups vision was considered extromissive and projective, consisting of forces leaving the viewer’s eyes and thus able to affect the world. Vision was particularly important for elites and for the divine. Beyond this general theory of visuality, Brittenham brings in different and often complementary theoretical perspectives in each chapter. This approach suits the diverse nature of her source material, acknowledging connections between Mesoamerican cultures without lumping them together. Throughout Mesoamerica, she argues, the visibility of sculpture indexed power over time (8).

Beginning in the lowlands along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, chapter one considers the massive offerings interred by ancient Olmec makers between 700 and 500 BCE. Each massive offering consisted of layers of stone and colored clay, often topped with a mosaic design made of stone blocks. The offerings represent intense communal labor and impressive deposits of wealth; Massive Offering 1, for instance, contained approximately one thousand tons of stone. Yet the offerings were buried almost immediately and only uncovered by twentieth-century archaeologists.

To better understand these works, Brittenham invokes Severin Fowles’s concept of “doings,” used by modern Pueblo communities in the southwest United States. This approach stresses process rather than product and allows a more productive understanding of how acts surrounding the offerings contributed as much or more meaning than the objects themselves. Brittenham emphasizes the effective but ephemeral nature of sight in the construction of layer after layer of stone and clay and delves into an iconographic analysis of the mosaic that topped the offering. She also introduces a theme that will become central in her final consideration of Aztec sculpture: connections between sculptures and burials. Buried serpentine blocks, placed via communal labor, can be considered a sacrificial offering that would, in the language of Fowles, bring the world into being through the interconnectedness of people, material, and place. Time, too, becomes a running theme: participants engaged with the massive offerings level by level, encouraging them to form mental images of a work that was never visible all at once, even as the process of making bound community members via collective memory. Brittenham finds that over time at La Venta, community investment—and perhaps participation—in hidden works like the mosaic pavements waned, replaced by increasingly visible architecture and sculpture. Brittenham connects this trend to growing hierarchy. Throughout the chapter, her deft handling of historical archaeological data, and its presentation in a variety of forms, strengthens her assertion that meaning is in the making.

In chapter two, Brittenham turns to the Maya region to consider carved stone lintels. Placed atop the interior of doorways in Maya buildings, lintels from the Late Classic period (ca. 600–900 CE) were carved in low relief and sometimes painted. In their original context, such works were difficult to examine in detail, requiring viewers to stop in the middle of the doorway and crane their necks to look above them. Yet artists carved lintels with complex imagery and text.

Brittenham’s treatment of the lintel form is a much-needed, wide-angled perspective that helps us understand Maya art more broadly. She begins with a census of Maya lintels, highlighting their varied distribution, orientation, and material. She then traces the embodied experience of the lintel, which, like other Maya works, demands engagement from viewers. Lintels placed viewers hierarchically beneath the individual depicted and were subject to that individual’s powerful sight, presenting “hierarchies of vision” familiar from Maya stelae (58) but explicitly embodied in the lintel form. The political ramifications of the gaze are made clear in this chapter, particularly by an insightful discussion of royal women and their role in lintel programs. The author also draws on Colonial-era accounts of artists’ workshops to consider visual access during the process of creation, and on hieroglyphic texts that prioritize the dedication of the sculptures and the buildings in which they were placed. As in the Olmec area, Brittenham tracks changes over time. Later Maya lintels, she argues, were “conceptually obligatory” but not meant for informed looking (83).

This chapter takes an expansive view that complements recent in-depth analyses of specific lintel programs, including Houston et al.’s A Maya Universe in Stone (Getty Publications, 2021), and Brittenham’s own article on the lintels of Yaxchilan Structure 23 (The Art Bulletin, 2019). Additional archaeological data would help make the author’s argument even more convincing and illuminate regional artistic trends within the Maya area. Excavations at La Corona, for instance, suggest widespread participation in temple dedication ceremonies, offering a potential answer to questions about who may have participated in the events commemorated by lintels (Joanne Baron, Patron Gods and Patron Lords, University Press of Colorado, 2016). Brittenham ends the chapter with a discussion of hierarchies of visibility and the ritual role of stelae, which are often oversimplified as public propaganda. This section is a compelling rethinking of the embodied experience of Maya art and the historical specificity of engaged looking.

Moving north to central Mexico, the next chapter explores the carved undersides of Aztec sculptures in and around Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Myriad types of sculptures were carved on their undersides, from coiled serpents to famous works like Coatlicue. Brittenham examines what types of things were carved on hidden surfaces, from extensions of naturalistic coils of a snake to dates to the names of rulers. According to Brittenham, some of the “types” of sculptures with carved undersides derived originally from ancient, ruined cities called Tollans like Teotihuacan and Tula. Sculptures carved on the underside seem to date to the late empire, moreover, indicating that sculpting the undersides of works was part of a transition in Tenochtitlan in which the ceremonial center was refashioned to directly quote earlier traditions. Echoing the Olmec “doings” explored in chapter one, the author considers dedication ceremonies and caches interred in the ceremonial center. Both caches and sculptures, she argues, could manifest teotl, taking an active role in creating the world the way it ought to be.

Brittenham successfully connects the hidden carved undersides of sculptures to the power of visibility in the Aztec empire. She notes that while such sculptures were never the main focus of ritual, that honor belonged to similarly hidden objects: wrapped bundles, whose contents were never seen publicly. Likewise, strict boundaries on the visibility of the ruler created asymmetrical power relations. Ultimately, Brittenham suggests, the manipulation of visibility was a way to create hierarchy through the management of power—one that coincided with the expansion of the Aztec empire.

Despite its wide scope—three different cultures, operating in different areas and time periods—this ambitious project considers ancient makers on their own terms, marshaling an impressive array of sources and walking readers nimbly through diverse but interconnected approaches to making and meaning. The volume itself is generously illustrated with color images. The end result is an insightful collection of essays that pushes the study of Mesoamerican art beyond iconography to consider the power of visibility. Throughout, Brittenham touches on the contemporary display and reception of Mesoamerican art, linking considerations of visibility in the past to ongoing conversations about the power of the gaze, colonial collections, and contemporary display. Ultimately, Unseen Art brings to the forefront questions about the power of looking that are vital not just for scholars of Indigenous art of the Americas, but for all of art history. The interventions presented here ask us to consider the meaning of looking; the role of the body in relation to works of art; and connections between visibility and power that resonate in the present as well as in the past.

Caitlin Earley
Assistant Professor, School of Art + Art History + Design, University of Washington