Refuting “Noble Savages”: Reflections of Nature in Ancient Mesoamerican Artifacts

The Fine Arts Gallery is thrilled to present a collection of ancient Latin American artifacts curated by undergraduate students as part of a semester-long course led by Dr. Markus Eberl, Associate Professor of Vanderbilt’s Department of Anthropology. The exhibition focuses on the connection between nature and the cultural practices of ancient Mesoamerican people.

The heat of sunrise and the growing rumble of jungle life signals morning. It is harvest time, and the smell of corn stalks being cut and removed from the chinampas is refreshing. Women chatter as they begin dyeing large bundles of agave fiber deep red, using the cochineal beetle, while men begin practicing in the nearby ball field, surrounded by the jungle on one side and market stalls on the other. Children run past, throwing a rubber ball to friends, their varied skull shapes signaling their varied progress in achieving the conical definition as a tribute to the corn goddess. This—the sounds, sights, and smells—is just a small glimpse into the daily life in Mesoamerica.

The artifacts on view come from ancient areas spanning from Central Mexico all the way to Peru, a geography that was once inhabited by highly developed and flourishing ancient civilizations hundreds to thousands of years ago. The exhibition elucidates the daily life, practices, and values held by ancient Mesoamerican people, as told through the lens of the small artifacts they left behind. These artifacts, which have been studied and contextualized by Vanderbilt students, help present a clearer picture of the environment of the ancient Americas. In this way, the exhibit also seeks to challenge the Westernized term “Noble Savages,” a reference to Western portrayals of ancient Mesoamerican peoples in a subdued and romanticized form. In reusing this out-of-date term, students aim to draw attention to its racially charged connotation while seeking to create an opposing representation of ancient Mesoamericans that focuses on their diversity of daily practices.

With the inclusion of interactive elements including (but not limited to) 3D artifact-replicas that invite hands-on discovery, we hope that you will join us in encouraging a multi-sensory exploration of Ancient Mesoamerica.

Refuting “Noble Savages”: Reflecting Nature Through Ancient Mesoamerican Artifacts is the result of a partnership between the Department of History of Art and the Fine Arts Gallery at Vanderbilt Univeristy. This student-curated exhibition comes from a semester of work carried out in a class entitled “Exhibiting Historical Art—Daily Life in Mesoamerica” and was led by Professor Markus Eberl. The undergraduate students included in this exhibition process included Baha Aydin, Kaitlin Joshua, Elsa Mueller, Kirsten Nafziger, Bella Smith, Sophie Stark, Yunyang Zhou, and Michelle Zhu.

Refuting “Noble Savages”: Reflecting Nature Through Ancient Mesoamerican Artifacts is on view April 19–August 22, 2019. 

Then & Now: Five Centuries of Woodcuts

Nearly a millennium after its origination in fifth-century Chinese textiles, the woodcut became a popular medium in Europe, thanks to the prevalence of paper manufacturing in late-fourteenth-century France and Germany. The medium has continued to resonate in print practices globally, with artists still creating woodcuts today. Then & Now: Five Centuries of Woodcuts spotlights prints from Vanderbilt’s collections, surveying the wide range of woodcuts created over 500 years and across many cultures.

Beginning with Michael Wolgemut’s Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, ca. 1491, the exhibition continues its survey through sixteenth-century examples by the master of the medium Albrecht Dürer, a student of Wolgemut, as well as works by other prominent German artists including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung Grien, and Albrecht Altdorfer. Spotlighting printmaking practices outside of Germany are fine chiaroscuro woodcuts by Ugo da Carpi, one of the first practitioners of this early form of color printmaking, and Antonio Fantuzzi da Trento, as well as an example by Netherlandish artist Paulus Moreelse. Also on view is a recently conserved seventeenth-century woodcut, Hercules Overcoming Envy, by Christoffel Jegher after a design by Peter Paul Rubens—often considered to be one of the most important works in the history of printmaking.

The nineteenth century is represented by The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, a rare, large-scale volume printed in 1896 by William Morris, with engraved illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, on loan from Vanderbilt’s Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives.

Moving into the twentieth century, a suite of powerful woodcuts created by World War I veteran and artist Conrad Felixmüller in 1918 and a work from 1923 by Gerhard Marcks help illuminate the medium’s more recent revival at the hands of prominent German Expressionists, who were directly inspired by medieval woodcuts. A print by Dadaist Hans Arp is included among those on view, along with works by other twentieth-century artists such as the Americans Fritz Eichenberg and Sidney Chafetz. (The latter two are recent gifts that will be shown for the first time at the gallery.) Two prints from a portfolio created by contemporary American artist Jay Bolotin, as source material for what may be the first animated woodcut film, are also on view, along with the film itself. Additional twenty-first-century prints, by the German artist Christiane Baumgartner and the Korean-born artist Koo Kyung Sook, bring the exhibition into the present, illustrating the medium’s arresting potential and persistent place in contemporary art.

Beginning February 11, a concurrent presentation of works in Gallery 2 curated by Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery Intern Echo Sun (art and psychology major, Class of 2020), focuses on Japanese woodblock prints from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This display of work reveals the enduring influence of traditional ukiyo-e (pictures of the “floating world”) prints, while highlighting examples of more contemporary, artist-driven expressions of the form. This companion presentation to Then & Now: Five Centuries of Woodcuts includes editions by Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kiyoshi Saito, and Takahashi Hiroaki (Shotei), among other Japanese artists working in the woodblock print medium over these two centuries.

Then & Now: Five Centuries of Woodcuts is on view January 10–March 1, 2019.
Opening Reception: Thursday January 10, 5:00–7:00 p.m.

Digital Futures, Archaeological Pasts

In spring 2018, nine students in the History of Art seminar, “Exhibiting Historical Art: Digital Approaches to Ancient Greek Ceramics,” studied a selection of ancient Mediterranean antiquities in the collection of the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, and curated this exhibition. The objects range in date from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE and include Greek and Etruscan vases, a Greek coin, and a Greco-Roman marble sculptural head. In addition to exploring each object’s historical context and significance, the students learned photogrammetry, a process for generating digital models of 3D objects through photography. By creating and printing these digital 3D models, students sought insight into how new, digital approaches might facilitate research into, and engagement with, ancient material and visual culture.

Digital Futures, Archaeological Pasts is the fifth student-curated exhibition to result from a partnership between the Department of History of Art and the Fine Arts Gallery, this time led by Dr. Veronica Ikeshoji-Orlati, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow for Data Curation. The exhibition is curated by Aleah Davis ‘21, Joseph Eilbert ‘19, Brant Feick ‘18, Lindsay Fraser ‘19, Kinsley Ray ‘21, Gabrielle Rodriguez ‘21, Heaven Russell ‘21, Kalen Scott ‘21, and Sarah Taylor ’18, and supported, in part, by the Department of History of Art.

Digital Futures, Archeological Pasts is on view through January 31, 2019.
The Gallery will be closed from December 7, 2018–January 9, 2019 for Winter Break.