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Blood Lines

Blood Lines
Myth, Indigenism and Chicana/o Literature

Placing texts of Chicana/o indigenism and nationalism alongside European and Euro-American ethnographic, travel, and journalistic writing, this is the first comprehensive, comparative literary study of its kind.

Series: Chicana Matters Series, Deena J. González and Antonia Castañeda, editors

July 2008
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232 pages | 6 x 9 |

Blood Lines: Myth, Indigenism, and Chicana/o Literature examines a broad array of texts that have contributed to the formation of an indigenous strand of Chicano cultural politics. In particular, this book exposes the ethnographic and poetic discourses that shaped the aesthetics and stylistics of Chicano nationalism and Chicana feminism. Contreras offers original perspectives on writers ranging from Alurista and Gloria Anzaldúa to Lorna Dee Cervantes and Alma Luz Villanueva, effectively marking the invocation of a Chicano indigeneity whose foundations and formulations can be linked to U.S. and British modernist writing.

By highlighting intertextualities such as those between Anzaldúa and D. H. Lawrence, Contreras critiques the resilience of primitivism in the Mexican borderlands. She questions established cultural perspectives on "the native," which paradoxically challenge and reaffirm racialized representations of Indians in the Americas. In doing so, Blood Lines brings a new understanding to the contradictory and richly textured literary relationship that links the projects of European modernism and Anglo-American authors, on the one hand, and the imaginary of the post-revolutionary Mexican state and Chicano/a writers, on the other hand.


Honorable Mention, Modern Language Association Prize in United States Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano Literary and Cultural StudiesMLA Prize in United States Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano Literary and Cultural Studies Winners, Honorable Mention

  • Acknowledgments
  • Prelude
  • Introduction: Myths, Indigenisms, and Conquests
  • Chapter One. Mexican Myth and Modern Primitivism: D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent
  • Chapter Two. The Mesoamerican in the Mexican-American Imagination: Chicano Movement Indigenism
  • Chapter Three. From La Malinche to Coatlicue: Chicana Indigenist Feminism and Mythic Native Women
  • Chapter Four. The Contra-mythic in Chicana Literature: Refashioning Indigeneity in Acosta, Cervantes, Gaspar de Alba, and Villanueva
  • Coda
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Sheila Marie Contreras is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University, where she teaches American Studies and Chicano/Latino Studies. She lives in Lansing.


Chicana/o indigenism draws from a wealth of source material, directly and indirectly, acknowledged and unacknowledged, creating cultural narratives that rely prominently on mythic accounts drawn from anthropology and archaeology. This study is about the complications and paradoxes of Chicana/o literary indigenism, most especially this reliance on the mythic. Focusing on Chicana/o critical discourse as it is articulated in the academy, fiction, poetry, and essay, Blood Lines examines a uniquely Chicana/o practice of valorizing the Indian. At the same time that I set out the distinct character of Chicana/o literary indigenism, I also place these writings within the context of dominant narratives of the Indian in the Americas, including Anglo-American and European modernist primitivism and the indigenismo of the post-revolutionary Mexican state. Made possible by the "techniques of knowledge" and "strategies of power" (Spivak, "Subaltern" 274) that previously assured subaltern silence, Chicana/o indigenism must be understood as yet another stage in the history of the representation of Indians.


Even as Chicana/o indigenist discourse puts forth its critiques of racial domination, colonial violence, and land removal, it remains embedded within the very "circuits" of knowledge and power that have advanced imperialist agendas. Gayatri Spivak calls it the "imbrication of techniques of knowledge with strategies of power" ("Marginality" 59), suggesting that modes of learning and claims of knowledge are informed by discourses of control and domination. Stuart Hall provides additional useful instruction on this topic as he addresses the question of cultural identity and representation. Challenging the simple binary of the Présence Africaine and the Présence Européenne in the Afro-Caribbean, he argues that the two are never exclusive, instead existing as mutually informing and transforming. He contends, however, that it is the European presence that has fixed the Black subject "within its dominant regimes of representation: the colonial discourse, the literatures of adventure and exploration, the romance of the exotic, the ethnographic and traveling eye, the tropical languages of tourism, travel brochure and Hollywood . . ." ("Cultural" 233).


Hall's list ranges from the documents of colonial administrators and religious authority figures to accounts penned by explorers and travelers in colonial outposts and settler sites. Consider another context, for example, the documentation of the conquest of the Americas. Here, we find the recordings of Nahua myth, the translations and transcriptions of Aztec codices, the accounts of pre-Conquest civilization extracted from Native informants, and the first-person accounts of military and religious campaigns. These texts over time entered public discourse and attained, in many cases, the status of scientific observation. "The ethnographic and traveling eye" gained legitimacy as its narrative production was institutionalized in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. All of these narrative forms, from the documents of colonial administration to the unsanctioned accounts of those operating outside the institutions of state and religious power, have left their traces in the "tropical languages" popularized by contemporary touristic and media discourses.


Such texts perpetuate the colonial discourses that defined colonized subjects, established and legitimated the institutional power exerted upon them, and, often, unwittingly, eternalized the presence of those subjects. But we must not lose sight of Hall's major point above, and that is that European representations of Black subjects have become "a constitutive element" of Black self-representation. In other words, such administrative and travel narratives not only instantiated the image of the colonized periphery in the minds of those in the colonial center, but also worked to produce identity for the very Indigenous subjects objectified in these accounts.


The Significance of Myth


Chicana/o indigenism is deeply influenced by these European and Anglo-American "regimes of representation," which structure Chicana/o indigeneity to an extent. It is impossible to consider pre-Columbian religion and history outside the context of their presentation. The artifacts that often engender indigenist response are accessed visually through museum exhibits, as well as through photographic and other forms of reproduction found in art books, anthropological texts, and explorer narratives. Thus, indigenism interlocks with the circuits of knowledge and power that I refer to above and that are evident in the distribution of pre-Columbian myth. The sustained and explicit use of myth in Chicana/o indigenist texts connects indigenist thematics to one of those circuits, specifically, anthropological discourse. Myth has been a primary realm of anthropological research and representation, from the translations of cave paintings and codices to attempts to collect the stories of a "vanishing race" in the western plains of the United States. In the case of the region known today as the state of Mexico, Western fascination with myth and its subsequent role in the circulation of information about Indigenous cultures and histories is evident in the numerous texts about the country, including the amateur anthropological travel accounts, which have taken the mythological as organizing theme.


Books like Neil Baldwin's 1998 Legends of the Plumed Serpent: Biography of a Mexican God, a tour through the "remote ruins" of Mexico, point to mythology as the defining feature of Mexico's pre-Conquest past, with almost complete disregard for Indigenous populations of the present. In recalling his decision to write the book, arrived at while lazing on the Isla Mujeres in some form of margarita-induced reverie, Baldwin recounts his dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of materials designed to introduce the tourist to Mexico's past. Speaking about the site of Uxmal, he writes:


There was no mythic background for the place, no sense conveyed of the intrinsic, underlying meaning, which predates the usual descriptions of what invading Spaniards saw and did when they arrived in the sixteenth century. (3)


Baldwin intends to address his concern by charting the trail of Quetzalcoatl in the archaeological ruins of Mexico. His remedy for the dearth of information is precisely this focus on the mythic, an apparent antidote to the "usual descriptions" of European invaders. It is myth, Baldwin suggests, rather than history, that reveals the essence of the country; it "predates" European accounts of the history of the Conquest and conveys "intrinsic, underlying meaning." It is through myth that we attain our deepest understanding of Indigenous Mexico, as we abandon the false constructs of European historical narratives and arrive at the essential. What Baldwin does not account for is that the fundamental meanings he purports to offer the reader are for the most part merely the explanations of non-Indigenous social scientists.


Indigenous mythologies have also received a fair amount of critical attention in the Western academy. The prominence of anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss in the theorization of myth makes evident the anthropological concern with the mythic. One could say that mythology is the province of anthropologists, who have expended a great deal of effort collecting and assembling myth and folklore as a way to explain primitive cultures. From the expansive four-volume Mythologiques to the condensed series of radio talks found in Myth and Meaning, however, Lévi-Strauss also advocated for an understanding of the role of myth in contemporary Western society. He rejected the idea that myth is simply the product of "primitive" thinking unable to move beyond the utilitarian aspects of existence, the search for survival, the struggle for the "next whole meal," and, in this proposition, he departed greatly from the theories of another prominent anthropologist, Bronislav Malinowski. Lévi-Strauss understood myth as language and also as something different, a form of speech more complex than other linguistic forms or expressions. Using the Saussurean terms "langue" and "parole," he describes the first as the "structural side of language . . . belonging to a reversible time" and the second as "the statistical side of language . . . being non-reversible" (Structural Anthropology 209). Myth, he explains, is a combination of the two and bringing together these "time referents" creates a "third referent": "the specific pattern described is timeless; it explains the present and the past as well as the future" (209). Myth, therefore, both acknowledges and dismisses history; it is at once "historical and ahistorical" (210).


Lévi-Strauss' attempt to import linguistic methods into the study of myth has been roundly critiqued, as has his idea that myth depends upon a structural rigor and mobilizes systems of signification of which its tellers are unaware. Although Jonathan Culler is convinced by Lévi-Strauss' structural approach when used to read groupings of myth that share a similar meaning, he remains decidedly unconvinced of the broader application of Lévi-Strauss' method. Most significantly, argues Culler, the anthropologist fails to provide evidence about meaning, ignoring the vital role that linguistic competence plays in the theorization of linguistics. "More than anything else," Culler writes, "it is the lack of data about meaning that vitiates the analogy with linguistics, for in the study of language the structural and the semiological cannot be dissociated: the relevant structures are those which enable sequences to function as signs" (49). Lévi-Strauss' method may bring together myths from vastly unrelated cultural contexts to reveal meaning, but it offers nothing to explain what the differences between those myths actually mean. In Culler's estimation, Lévi-Strauss invents meaning as he makes his argument for the structure of myth; however, the viability of that structure relies upon community understanding of its conventions. The fact that "[w]e know little about how to read myths" (Culler 51), that readers have no competency in Lévi-Strauss' system because meaning is contrived only by/in the quest to determine structure, means that myth, finally, is left unexplained. What Culler does grant Lévi-Strauss is ample credit for approaching "mythology as an institution" (50), and attempting to understand myth beyond the level of the local and the individual. Andrew Von Hendy similarly notes the contribution Lévi-Strauss makes by "establishing 'myth' as an object of study in its own right" (250), only the first of a series of accomplishments that Von Hendy ascribes to Lévi-Strauss.


What interests me most about Lévi-Strauss' approach is what the anthropologist had to say about the relationship between myth and history, which explains my choice of quotations in representing his work. Similarly compelling as we consider the interaction of myth with history is literary critic Roland Barthes' analysis, in which he defines myth as a "third level" of language. He elaborates this idea as a "second-order semiological system," one that takes the sign of the first-order semiological system of language as its signifier:


[M]eaning loses its value, but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment. The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of history, a tamed richness, which it is possible to call and dismiss in a sort of rapid alternation: the form must constantly be able to be rooted again in the meaning and to get there what nature it needs for its nutriment; above all, it must be able to hide there. It is this constant game of hide-and-seek between the meaning and the form which defines myth. (Mythologies 118)


Thus, according to Barthes, myth again is form, rather than content, a speech type, rather than the concept or idea itself. The tenacity of mythic speech is derived from its ability to deploy or reflect at will a meaning held in perpetual reserve. Myth is parasitic, drawing its life force from vapid "meanings" that persist despite their apparent worthlessness. And although any and all myth surely have historical origins, those origins are forgotten or discarded in the dissemination of myth. Yet, myth hides nothing; it is not sneaky or intentionally deceptive; it is, in fact, quite plain and straightforward. Its primary purpose is to naturalize its intentions, not to hide them as it "transforms history into nature" (128). Even more than Louis Althusser, who never actually defined his use of the term "myth," Barthes renders myth virtually synonymous with "ideology . . . by talking as if 'ideology' were something subsisting in practice entirely in its myriad networks of cultural 'mythologies'" (Von Hendy 290). Moreover, what distinguishes Barthes' structuralist analysis of myth is its basis in a popular sense of myth as "widely propagated lie," a theoretical mobilization of the term inaugurated by Althusser (Von Hendy 290). From Barthes' perspective, the confusions and untruths enacted by myth are the workings of bourgeois ideology, which must be permanently and vigilantly critiqued.


These contested propositions—that myth is a form of speech, that it reactivates the sign as form to initiate a further system of signification, that it depends upon history even as it erases it, and that it renders its motivations as part of a natural order—nevertheless can help us to discern the complexities of Chicana/o indigenist use of myth. Chicana/o indigenism relies upon an already established signifying order, one launched by the narratives of travel and exploration and later professionalized in the consolidation of anthropology as an academic discipline. Chicana/o expressions of literary indigenism mobilize cultural conventions, investing them with new meaning. The Coatlicue statue that Anzaldúa presents, or the Aztec and Maya cosmogony that the poet Alberto Urista, more commonly known as Alurista, calls upon, bring with them not the unique historical fullness of the civilizations that created them but rather accepted notions about the pre-technological, the pre-modern, the pre-Christian, and the primitive. That all these ideas express something about people and societies that existed in the Americas before the arrival of the English, the French, and the Spanish is unquestioned and critical for the purposes of Chicana/o indigenism. As the sign is redeployed as a signifier in this second-order system of myth, the new meaning attached to it says something now about Chicanas/os specifically, about their ancestral knowledge, about cultural genealogy, but most importantly about their historical primacy.


A recent example proves illustrative. In her address to the 2003 Modern Language Association convention in San Diego, MLA president Mary Louise Pratt invoked Coatlicue in an attempt to recognize, or perhaps honor, the oppositional geographic entity of Aztlán, homeland of Chicanas/os:


We're in the heart of Greater Aztlán, and in that spirit I'd like to call tonight on the company of one of its most gorgeous and powerful deities, Coatlicue, goddess of life and death, mother of the meditative plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, of the war-like Huitzilopochtli, and of his sister and archrival Coyolxauhqui. Coatlicue is recognized by her skirt of serpents and her necklace of skulls and hands. In this beautiful carving, recovered in 1790 when the main plaza of Mexico City was being paved, she has been decapitated, and a two-headed serpent has appeared where her head was. I'd like to imagine her tonight as a work of border art, standing on la linea, looking both ways. (417)


She identifies Coatlicue as a goddess of Aztlán, a discursive move made possible by Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, published in 1987. Pratt introduces Coatlicue as a goddess of duality, presiding over life and death, giving birth both to the god of peace, Quetzalcoatl, and the god of war, Huitzilopochtli. Coatlicue also functions as a bridge across the U.S.-Mexico border, so very present yet also remarkably absent in the border city of San Diego, especially in its downtown convention district. Farther south, however, the militarization of la frontera and the toll it takes in human lives is evident in the barbed wire fences and guard towers of the port of entry, as well as in the traffic signs designed to warn motorists of women and children who might appear in the middle of the freeway in flight from la migra. Pratt's political reference to San Diego as "the heart of Aztlán" counterbalances her reference to Coatlicue's emergence in the form of a statue recovered from underneath the Zócalo in Mexico City. Pratt thus introduces a transnational Coatlicue, who originated in the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and has become a goddess of Aztlán, the mythic mother of Chicanas/os. Such a rhetorical maneuver would have made little sense and, in fact, may have not been possible without the precedent set by Anzaldúa, who claimed and refigured Coatlicue in a form designed to empower Chicanas. Yet, Pratt's mobilization of the symbol of Coatlicue neglects to acknowledge Anzaldúa's initial intervention into pre-Columbian myth and its post-Columbian reception and, in this omission, says much about how effectively myth works and how quickly even its most recent transformations evaporate from memory.


Literary Primitivism and Mexico


The mythic in Chicana/o literary indigenism is entwined with literary primitivism, which finds its own sources in the narratives of anthropology and archaeology. Primitivism has been considered, to a large degree, as an art-historical term, which William Rubin, co-organizer of the 1984 Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) exhibit, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, defines as the "interest of modern artists in tribal art and culture, as revealed in their thought and work" (1). In his deft critique of Rubin and co-curator, Kirk Varnedoe, Hal Foster challenges the "tribal-modern affinity" that is the organizing theme of the show. Despite the acknowledgment of modern interest in "tribal art and culture," according to Foster, the curators' more central goal is to position tribal and modern art alongside each other and to diminish the sphere of influence from tribal to modern. As an example, Foster cites MOMA's use of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as set piece for the show displayed in tandem with African masks, which have frequently been identified as source material for the painting. The argument for affinity, however, "runs that Picasso could not have seen these masks, that the painting manifests an intuitive primitivity or 'savage mind'" (46). Furthermore, and perhaps most damning, is that the show suppressed the history of colonialism and the bribery, trickery, and theft that made primitive art available to Europe.


Rubin's use of the term differs from cultural and/or chronological primitivism, in which practitioners celebrate instinct, simplicity, and an unmediated relationship with "nature" over "civilization," which is equated with the advent of capitalism, industrialism, and technology. Such beliefs may or may not be coupled with a glorification of a "golden age" of history, or "pre-history." They may find expression in the adoption of artistic forms and styles of so-called primitive peoples. Across these definitions, however, it seems that Maximillian Novak's assessment of primitivism in the eighteenth century continues to hold true in that it is "the idealization of a way of life that differs from our own in being less complicated, less polished, and less self-aware" (456).


Perhaps the most radical forms of cultural and chronological primitivism combined can be found in the deep ecology and some anarchist movements, which reject civilization and its oppressive mechanisms of capitalism and patriarchy. Fundamentally influenced by the writings of John Zerzan, these movements are called variously anarcho-primitivism, the anti-civilization movement, radical primitivism, or anti-authoritarian primitivism (See John Moore). Such iterations of primitivism demand the rejection of technology to reverse and overcome the damaging effects of a regimented and repressive division of labor designed in accordance with class and gender hierarchies. Deep ecologist and anarchist philosophies seek to combat the alienation of the worker that results from the segmentation and specialization of labor, which these philosophies identify as the foundation of modern civilization.


Apart from deep ecology and anarchist thinking, most versions of Western primitivist philosophy do not promote an actual "return" to modes of living that preceded civilization. Instead, as in the context of modern art, primitivism more likely attempts to incorporate, emulate, reproduce, or, by some accounts, appropriate the artistic forms of the "non-Western," or "tribal," peoples to which Rubin refers. In other cases, the emphasis is more explicitly on the idea of the primitive given human form: the tribal person, the African chieftain, the Caribbean "voodoo doctor," the Indian warrior and medicine wo/man, the Native woman, the Noble Savage. All versions of primitivism, however, rest to some degree upon this sort of imagining. They might idealize the pre-historical human who existed and thrived outside of the repressive confines of modern civilization or the anonymous Native artist/craftsman whose work expresses the sensibilities not of the individual but of the community to which that person belongs. We find primitivist projects that idealize an excavated ancestor whose visage, corporeal existence, and belief systems are accessible only through the documentations of his/her dispossessor. These documentations include images of goddesses and gods deemed worthy of preservation and legitimated in the present through the academic disciplines of archaeology and art history.


Foster provides a concise review of the primitive in Western culture as historically "articulated . . . in deprivative or supplemental terms" (58). Thus, the primitive is either abject barbarian or spiritual guide, pre-literate, pre-historical, culturally simplistic, or "a site of originary unity, symbolic plentitude, natural vitality" (58). Primitives are most often viewed as a source of regenerative energy, Sally Price points out, because they are "imagined to express their feelings free from the intrusive overlay of learned behavior and conscious constraints that mold the work of the Civilized Artist" (32). In the first extensive study of primitivism and art, Robert Goldwater also suggested the guiding logic behind the modernist desire to dig deeper into the collective psyche:


It is the assumption that any reaching under the surface, if only it is carried far enough and proceeds according to the proper method, will reveal something "simple" and basic which, because of its very fundamentality and simplicity, will be more emotionally compelling than the superficial variations of the surface; and finally that the qualities of simplicity and basicness are things to be valued in and for themselves: In other words, it is the assumption that the further one goes back—historically, psychologically, or aesthetically—the simpler things become; and that because they are simpler they are more profound, more important, and more valuable. (251)


This idea of profound simplicity stands in direct challenge to the meaningless complexities and ruptures of modern civilization and so the primitive has served many purposes since its emergence in the Enlightenment period. Indeed, from Montaigne to Rousseau to D. H. Lawrence to Georges Bataille, versions of primitivism have long been used to challenge accepted versions of the civilized. The primitive is structured as opposition; through its image, "Western" culture is revealed as spiritually lacking, morally corrupt, misdirected, and self-destructive. In its earliest formulations, primitivism—the transvalorization of the "non-civilized"—questioned the politics and policies of dominant cultures. Writers and artists continue to appropriate the idea of "the savage," of which the Indian is a version, as a vehicle for social critique, using it to express dismay over progress and modernization and to advance arguments for simpler, less complicated modes of living premised on a "return" to more "natural" philosophies of existence. Communitarian social structures and relaxed social mores, especially as related to sexual practices (although primitivist discourse has been decidedly heterosexist and patriarchal), are features of so-called primitive society glorified by writers past and present.


The primitive exists, in part, as a means through which and against which non-primitives define themselves and their own cultural contexts. This discourse that defines and appropriates Native cultures functions, ironically, to maintain the place of "the West" in the evolutionary order. Even if Western society is found to be corrupt and empty of "real" meaning, it continues to retain its place as civilized in relation to primitive societies and, in fact, is made the more enlightened precisely because of this recognition of the value of the "uncivilized." In their attempts to celebrate Indigenous cultures, primitivists identify features or practices that might be collected and imported into a Western context to make civilized life richer. In few cases do primitivists actually want to adopt fully a primitive lifestyle. The primitive, rather, is an exotic symbol that can be used to represent "man" in a condition of nature, as in the writings of Montaigne, or unconscious drives, as in the work of D. H. Lawrence. Academics, philosophers, and other writers have imposed an arduous task, that of charting a path of redemption for Europeans and European-Americans.


Mexico and Primitivism


In studies of modernist primitivism, little attention has been given to the place of Mexico as a site for European spiritual and cultural redemption, perhaps, in part, because European and Euro-American representations of Mexican culture emphasize a fascination with death that is traced back to pre-Conquest religious practices of human sacrifice. Goldwater, who was the first director of the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, an early historian of modern art, and considered one of the first experts in the study of African art, writes in Primitivism in Modern Art that because the Aztec and Inca civilizations had "long been destroyed and their lands occupied," they did not offer living examples of primitive simplicity (266). These societies did not conform to modernist ideas of the static nature of primitive societies or answer the need for contemporary examples of the perceived "immemorial" character of the primitive. Benjamin Keen, following Goldwater's lead, also contends that because of the "relatively high degree of formal complexity" of ancient Mesoamerican societies, discernable particularly in Aztec artifacts, Mexico had less influence than Africa and Oceania on modern primitivism (510).


Rubin, former director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, writes in the introduction to the catalog for the 1984 MOMA exhibit, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, that he considers Aztec art to be more "archaic" than "primitive" and more logically grouped with Egyptian art. Rubin bases this assessment on the apparent strict levels of hierarchy and specialization in Aztec social structure. It is, rather, the arts of "tribal" Africa and Oceania that are more properly classified as "primitive," whereas Aztec, Maya, and Toltec art, according to Rubin, issues from "court" cultures (74-75 n.14). These particular Mesoamerican civilizations, he writes, were exceptions in the context of pre-Columbian cultural forms, which, for the most part, have much more in common with what is more properly deemed "primitive" in the art world. Although he does acknowledge the interest in pre-Columbian art among modern artists, he argues that the influence emanated from the "Archaic sculpture of the Aztec, Maya, Toltec and Olmec cultures" (74-75 n.14). Barbara Braun concurs with the previous assessments to a degree when she argues that although they had been circulating in Europe as curiosities and exotica since the sixteenth century, "Pre-Columbian artifacts were never central to the 'primitivist revolution'; unlike African objects, they played no important role in Picasso's generation of Cubism" (38). Rubin includes a rather lengthy footnote documenting Picasso's ambivalent responses to "what he called 'l'art aztèque,' by which he meant the whole of Columbian art as he knew it" (333 n.5). In one case, in a conversation with Rubin, he calls pre-Columbian art "boring, inflexible, too big . . . figures without invention" (75 n.15). Yet Rubin quotes from a collection of interviews and conversations in which the Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï documents Picasso's reaction to a photograph of pre-Columbian art: the "'Aztec head' makes Picasso pause abruptly, and then he cries: 'That is as rich as the façade of a cathedral'" (75 n.15).


Braun also notes, however, that in the late nineteenth century, pre-Columbian artifacts began to "[inspire] Western designers, artists, and craftspersons to incorporate and imitate them in their own work" (21). She credits Paul Gauguin's interest in decorative arts to the inspiration he received from exhibitions at the Paris Expositions of 1878 and 1889 (38). The display of pseudo-ancient Mexican material culture was especially notable in 1889, where the ambitious, if anthropologically, architecturally, and historically confused Aztec Palace was constructed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Vincent Van Gogh early expressed an interest in primitivism, most immediately recognizable in his praise of ancient Egyptian art, but also documented in his curiosity about "the tropics." Although he did not see the History of Habitation display at the 1889 Exposition, he did see an image of a simulated ancient Mexican structure designed not by Mexicans, but by a French architect. Van Gogh wrote to Emile Bernard that "I saw in one of the illustrated papers a sketch of ancient Mexican dwellings; they too seem to be primitive and very beautiful" (Read 48). It was Gauguin's and Van Gogh's announcements of their own fascinations with the primitive that launched an interest in Aztec art in the 1930s, according to Rubin.


Ethnographic and archaeological information about pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, however, had been circulating in Europe for some time. Braun brings together a wide-ranging list of travelers, explorers, tycoons, and amateur archaeologists who began producing textual material in the early nineteenth century. Among these was the explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled to Mexico in 1803, where he convinced authorities to disinter the statue of Coatlicue, which had been reburied shortly after it was excavated in 1790. Braun credits his work, Vues des Cordilleres, et Monuments des Peuples Indigenes de l'Amérique, part of a thirty-volume series on America, with "reshap[ing] the European vision of ancient Mexico and stimulat[ing] further explorations" (26). The photographic and other reproductions of Désiré Chanay, who in 1857-58 visited several Maya archaeological sites in Mexico, were also significant in the dissemination of visual images and narrative descriptions of ancient Mesoamerica. Unlike France, Britain did not attract public support for the study of pre-Columbian artifacts, but in 1822, William Bullock, "collector of natural and ethnographic curiosities and a showman" (Braun 30) organized a show of antiquities that he had brought back from Mexico. This show, staged in London's Piccadilly Circus, peaked the interest of Lord Edward Kingsborough in pre-Columbian manuscripts and was influential in the production of his encyclopedic Antiquities of Mexico, which later served as a source for Diego Rivera (Braun 31, Brown 139). The most impressive British collections were amassed by Henry Christy and Alfred P. Maudslay. Christy's collection provided the basis for the British Museum's pre-Columbian permanent collection when it acquired a bequest in 1865. In the 1860s and 1870s, Braun writes, the first ethnographic galleries including pre-Columbian artifacts emerged in Paris and London, and in 1850, the Louvre opened its first Americanist exhibition containing approximately nine hundred objects. The Louvre collection, however, was eventually dismantled (31).


The first significant explorer from the United States was John L. Stephens, who traveled with Frederick Catherwood in the Yucatán and Central America during the period 1839-42. Stephens produced two volumes from these forays, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, and both enjoyed immense popularity among the U.S. reading public. Catherwood's illustrations, engravings, and daguerreotypes remain the "most famous depictions" of the Mayan ruins partially because, Braun notes, William Prescott championed them in The History of the Conquest of Mexico (32). The expeditions of Stephens and Catherwood were especially relevant in a time when the United States was struggling to establish its unique presence in relation to Europe. Thus, the artifacts of pre-Columbian civilizations, like the Indian mounds located within U.S. borders, provided material with which the country could assert an ancient patrimony to rival anything Europe had to offer. This type of collecting, in Braun's formulation, "became symbolic capital for both cosmopolitan status and confirmation of a national culture tied to the land" (32).


Prior to the emergence of universities as the primary repositories of archaeological knowledge, it was, as Braun's overview summarized above makes clear, the museum that housed these knowledges. Museums were, according to Elizabeth Hill Boone, "the homeland of anthropology and archaeology" (329). In France, the Trocadero has been a place of signal importance for the modern public's access to ancient Mesoamerica. Harvard's Peabody Museum, endowed in 1860, became the "premier center of Pre-Columbian studies" (Braun 33) in the nineteenth century, and other important institutions included the emerging Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History. In the case of Britain, the British Museum was and continues to be a preeminent site of access for specialist and non-specialist alike.


The sculptor Henry Moore provides confirmation not only of Western artistic fascination with pre-Conquest Mexico, but also of the degree to which museums, and the British Museum in particular, function to instantiate versions of the primitive in the minds of their viewing audiences. Furthermore, articles in scholarly and popular journals, as well as book-length works provided details of archaeological expeditions, theories about life in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, and, most importantly for Moore, reproductions that he modeled throughout his life. Texts drawn from this archive proved invaluable to Moore, who consulted them as "sculptural pattern books, providing him with a repertory of images during the formative decade of his art" (Braun 98). Braun draws from Donald Hall's profile of the artist in a 1965 New Yorker series, noting that Moore was "something of a scholar of ancient Mexican sculpture" (97, n.17, 131). Rejecting Mayan sculpture as too similar to the Western tradition (Braun 107), Moore focused almost exclusively on Aztec sculpture, producing numerous works that not only evoke, but also clearly imitate particular Aztec artifacts. These works include masks; a series of sculptures entitled Mother and Child, the first carved in 1922; Snake (1924), a virtual replica of an Aztec coiled serpent; and the Reclining Figure series, famously modeled after the Chacmool, which appears throughout pre-Conquest Mesoamerica. In keeping with conventional primitivist values, Moore intended for the "primordial vitality" of Aztec art to "miraculously infuse new life into modern art" (Braun 111).


In a 1941 essay, "Primitive Art," Moore offers his definition of the term he takes as his title, elaborating on it by narrating a "memory-journey" through selected galleries of the British Museum as he laments its closing (presumably during World War II). The sculptor attributes his knowledge of pre-Columbian art to his wanderings in the halls of the Museum, writing that "[e]xcepting some collections of primitive art in France, Italy and Spain, my own knowledge of it [primitive art] has come entirely from continual visits to the British Museum during the past twenty years" (269). On Mesoamerica in particular, he says that "Mexican sculpture, as soon as I found it, seemed to me true and right . . . . Its 'stoniness,' by which I mean its truth to material, its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form-invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture" (270). In his own reproductions of the Chacmool figure, Moore always feminizes his reclining figures, and in doing so, resituates his work in the realm of Western artistic conventions. His recumbent females are passive figures that always look past the viewer. Their bodies are openly displayed, breasts prominent and pubic areas exposed, as if offered for consumption. "It is the old idealization of the female as a passive object of desire," Braun writes, "available to the determining male gaze as a symbolic release for lust, anxiety, and terror" (119). This represents, in Braun's final analysis, a "domestication of the primitive to Western culture by fusing its raw vitality, gravity, and mystery with familiar, acceptable content, such as the female figure, and conventional (sexist) attitudes towards it" (119).


This rehearsal of the relationship between the work of one of the most highly acclaimed modernist artists and the Aztec artifacts he sought out documents the impact of pre-Columbian culture in the post-Columbian art world, to draw upon the title to Braun's book. In Moore, we see the example of an artist searching for and then replicating what he believed to be truer forms of expression. Interestingly, in Braun's critique of Moore, we find a curious acceptance of the terms that primitivist thinking sets for itself, the vitality, the "spiritual fullness" that Foster earlier noted, the "mystery" of the unknown. But, more importantly, in the works of Braun, Foster, Rubin, and other art historians and critics, we have also been alerted to responses to pre-Columbian art—from Van Gogh, Picasso, and Moore—that suggest a rich variance of opinion among some of the most celebrated artists of the European modern period, even if none of them were motivated to claim Mexico as Gauguin did Tahiti.



“Utterly fascinating and urgently needed. Contreras manages to achieve a sustained, insightful, and comprehensive analysis. This will surely be path-breaking [and] draw attention to a concept that has been heretofore relatively understudied. Her work fills an important lacunae that will unlikely be surpassed for some time.”
Louis Mendoza, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Chicano Studies, University of Minnesota


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