• Arthur Bruso

Two Cubist works of art: Left: "Glass, Newspaper and Dice;" 1914, "Glass and Newspaper."
Left: "Glass, Newspaper and Dice;" 1914; wood, tin plate, iron wire, oil paint;6 7/8"h x 5 5/16" w x 1 3/16" d. Right: "Glass and Newspaper;" 1914; wood, pencil, oil paint; 6 1/16" h x 6 7/8" w x 1 3/16' d.

At the turn of the 20th century, the cultural talk was all about primitivism. Europe was expanding its colonies in Africa and the tribal artifacts from these new colonies were making their way back to Paris and other capitals of Europe. Collectors were buying the carvings and masks as curiosities – the European cognoscenti did not consider these objects art. The artists of Europe were enthralled by the crudely simplified geometric and abstract depictions of the faces and bodies that had little to do with Western ideas of figurative beauty; however, they also had no interest in the artifacts for their cultural or their ritual/religious associations either. Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein both had acquired examples that they were proud to show off at their salons to the eager and fascinated artists who attended. The forms of the objects were so radically different from anything Europe had produced since the Renaissance that they intrigued artists and collectors alike causing much talk and revelation.

Iberian sculpture of a seated woman; 300 BC -201 BC; 16" h x 7" w x 8" d; limestone.
Iberian sculpture of a seated woman; 300 BC -201 BC; 16" h x 7" w x 8" d; limestone.

To add to the fervor, in 1904 the Louvre put on a show of ancient Iberian art to display the artifacts that had been newly found in Spain. Pablo Picasso went to see these pre-Roman era antiquities from his homeland and believed that he had found the simplified figurative forms he had been looking for. At the time he had been working on his Rose Period paintings based on circus life and although these works were moderately successful for him and gathering some attention outside his artistic circle, Picasso was feeling the creative need to move on from these naturalistic paintings and create a bigger sensation with something new. He was hoping to transform the direction of western painting and take the attention away from the current Fauve movement and from Matisse who started it. The Fauves painted recognizable subject matter with bright colors in non-traditional ways. These artists were described by the critics as “wild beasts” who had flung a pot of paint in the face of the public. Despite this harsh reception, Fauvism had become the art movement of the young painters and had begun to be bought and approved of by collectors such as Gertrude and Leo Stein. Seeing the Iberian work caused a whole new body of work to foment within Picasso.

Mask of Ngil; Fang culture, Africa, 19th C; 27" h x 11" w x 10" d; wood, kaolin, copper alloy nails.
Mask of Ngil; Fang culture, Africa, 19th C; 27" h x 11" w x 10" d; wood, kaolin, copper alloy nails.

At the same time, Picasso gave in to Andre Derain’s insistence that he visit the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro to view the African artifacts. Picasso hated the museum, complaining that its rooms were badly lit and stank of rot. He wanted to leave as soon as he arrived, but what he saw was so intriguing and fresh that he lingered despite his complaints. He began to augment his Iberian idea to incorporate African forms. He had been struggling with a large painting in which he was trying to incorporate his Iberian figurative concepts but had doubts that he was creating a painting that would shock the art world as Matisse had done with The Joy of Life (1905) and Blue Nude (1907). These paintings had moved Matisse and his movement into the forefront of modern painting. Picasso felt in competition with Matisse and his goal was to usurp him as the leader of the avant garde. After his visit to Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, Picasso was inspired to modify his painting to include the forms of the African masks that had made an impression on him. With the transformation of two of the figures faces into africanesque masks, the fractured and faceted drapery that did not try to imitate the natural folds of cloth, and its abandonment of perspective, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon not only eventually displaced Matisse as the leader of the avant garde in Paris but changed the course of western art forever.

Pablo Picasso; "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon;" 1907; oil on canvas;  8' w x 7' h.
Pablo Picasso; "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon;" 1907; oil on canvas; 8' w x 7' h.

When Matisse saw the finished painting in 1907, he considered Les Demoiselles d’Avignon somewhat of a bad joke. The sensational talk about Picasso’s new painting quickly travelled around the artists of Paris. Many made their way to Picasso’s studio to view it. Their reactions varied from anger at its audacity to disagreement on its value as art. Many of Picasso’s artist circle considered the painting to be unfinished, the figures for all their radical interpretation of forms, did not relate to each other stylistically. There were comments that given Picasso’s earlier work, his drawing in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was clumsy and crude. The figure drawing the curtain closed on the left was unrealized and, in fact all the figures had issues with proportion and anatomy.

Amid all of the controversy and furor, one artist in particular, Georges Braque came to Picasso’s studio especially to see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He accused Picasso of “drinking turpentine and spitting fire” at the canvas. Although he initially disliked the painting, he could not deny the incendiary energy it had. He spent a long time studying it and discussing the work with Picasso. These discussions forged a friendship between the two which resulted in a sharing of ideas and a collaboration on a concept that would change the perceived space of a painting with the traditional perspective of a single, naturalistic placement, into something that could depict all sides of an object at once.

Paul Cézanne; "Mont Sainte-Victoire;" 1902-1904;  oil on canvas;  28 3/4" h × 36 3/16" w.
Paul Cézanne; "Mont Sainte-Victoire;" 1902-1904; oil on canvas; 28 3/4" h × 36 3/16" w.

Concurrently in 1907, there was a retrospective exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris of Paul Cezanne who had died the year before. Beginning in 1903, the Salon d’Automne was held yearly in reaction to the conservative policies of what could be shown at the official Paris Salon. It was an additional exhibition venue for avant garde artists along with its older rival the Salon des Indépendants. The Cezanne retrospective became influential to many younger artists, among them Picasso and Braque. However, these artists did not view Cezanne’s work as Cezanne intended. Cezanne was attempting to create volume through the juxtaposition of planes of color in his attempt to create a more classical landscape space in his work. The young artists of the turn of the 20th century perceived Cezanne as representing nature through geometric shapes and breaking down the landscape into small individual planes. For Braque, this misinterpreted idea became the visual inception of those new ideas on depicting space that he had been discussing with Picasso.

Cezanne’s painting caused Georges Braque to abandon the Fauve style he had been practicing and try to realize on canvas the ideas he was formulating with Picasso. In the summer of 1908, Braque decided to travel to L’Estaque in the south of France to paint in the footsteps of Cezanne and see for himself the scenes that inspired the deceased master. His output from that productive summer began to show the influences of his visits with Picasso, and his interpretation of Cezanne’s painting. His Houses at L’Estaque was the first painting where Braque was able to put down in visual form the ideas that had been occupying his mind. The resulting paintings reduced the objects in the landscape (in this case houses and trees) into their basic geometric shapes of squares and triangles, and simplified the color to an essential landscape palette of ochers and greens.

Georges Braque; "Houses at L'Estaque;" 1908; oil on canvas; 15.9 in h × 12.7 w.i
Georges Braque; "Houses at L'Estaque;" 1908; oil on canvas; 15.9 in h × 12.7 w.in

The radical nature of these deceptively simple paintings cannot be overstated. This was a major step in the visual evolution for both Braque and the future of art. The artist was no longer expected to be attentive to the depiction of three-dimensional forms and the naturalistic depiction of depth and space in his work. It was now possible to reconstruct forms and the space around them as the artist saw fit. However, Braque’s work from his summer in L’Estaque was not admired nor accepted by the other artists of the avant garde. In the 1908 Salon d’Automne, Braque’s paintings were rejected by the exhibition committee – of which Matisse was one. Matisse coyly dismissed Braque’s paintings by saying, "Braque has just sent in a painting made of little cubes." Most of the committee including Matisse voted to reject Braque’s submission. Two committee members wanted to keep two paintings of Braque’s on reserve in case there was room. In disgust, Braque pulled them all from consideration, and ended his relationship with Matisse and the Fauves.

But Braque had heard of a young art dealer who had opened a small galley on a Paris side street at 28 rue Vignon who was looking for artists. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was 23 years old When he started the Galley Kahnweiler with the notion of representing those artists of the avant garde who had no dealers or collectors and of whom he was convinced had talent. Khanweiler’s galley method was to contract with his artists to buy all their works in order for them to be financially stable enough to be able to work on their art full time. One of the conditions of his representation was that his artists under contract, could not show in the Salon d’Automne or the Salon d’Independants as long as they exhibited in his galleries. He signed on Braque as soon as he saw the work of Braque’s summer in L’Estaque and scheduled his first show when the Salon d’Automne had ended that season. Braque was now free of financial concerns.

By 1909, under Braque’s influence, Picasso began painting works that so much resembled Braque's “little cubes” that many viewers could not tell them apart. By 1911, the cubist idea had been taken up by several artists: Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay and Henri Le Fauconnier. This group had their own exhibition in the Salon d’Independants in the Spring of 1911. Because of Braque’s contractual agreement with Kahnweiler, he did not participate. Picasso followed suit. This left Braque and Picasso out of the discourse and controversy that caused an uproar with the public and critics. Because their works were largely out of the public eye at this time, they were spared the negative reactions to this new art movement being dubbed Cubism. This left Braque and Picasso free to experiment and develop their ideas without the stultifying negative input. Still, by 1911, Picasso had become ultimately recognized as the instigator of the new movement – not Braque. This was likely because Picasso was more willing to promote himself as the progenitor of this new art that was poised to overturn Matisse’s hold over the Paris art scene. Braque was more reticent about his place in the movement’s invention and about his career in general.

Despite this revisionist state of affairs, Picasso and Braque maintained their collaboration and spent the months of August and September in Sorgues, in the south of France. Here, Braque began working on cubist sculptures built out of paper. None of Braque’s paper sculptures exist any longer, but they intrigued Picasso so much, that by October, when he was back in Paris, Picasso wrote to Braque (who was still in the south of France) that he was using Braque’s paper procedures and creating a sculpture of a guitar. Mainly comfortable with painting, Picasso had attempted sculpture before his famous guitar. These previous three-dimensional objects were uneven in their execution because Picasso found the process of carving wood clumsy and difficult, while the act of carving stone was nearly impossible for him. He had better results with forming clay, but he simply did not have the aptitude or skills for traditional sculptural media.

Photograph of one of Georges paper Cubist sculptures. No longer extant.
Photograph of one of Georges paper Cubist sculptures. No longer extant.

Paper was more familiar and naturally malleable for Picasso. With Braque showing the way, he leaned into it with depth and intensity. After the paper version of the guitar and his other experiments with papier collé, Picasso wanted to fashion sculptural works out of more permanent materials. Beginning with scraps of found wood, some pieces of which he cut or otherwise modified to fit his vision, he began to build constructions. Adhering to the form of an easel painting, these constructions were intended to hang on the wall, not be experienced in the round. Works like Mandolin and Clarinet incorporated the elements of still life but were not an attempt at exploring naturalistic space. The work referenced the forms of the stated objects in the title but broke them apart to explore a cubist space. Given the limited modification of the found materials and the complicated splitting up of space, the mandolin and to a lesser extent the clarinet are difficult to detect.

In the spring of 1914, Picasso was still deep in exploring cubism and its possibilities as sculpture. He created two small box constructions of tabletop still lifes. These were the ideas that he and Braque were developing in their painting that Picasso also wanted to explore as three-dimensional forms. I saw these for the first time at an exhibition of Picasso’s sculptural works. I was especially drawn to them because my own work involves the creation of box constructions and was surprised to discover that Picasso had briefly used this format. Glass, Newspaper and Dice and Glass and Newspaper both use the box as a containing device to simplify the amount of information in the piece. This contrasted with the developing complexity of the analytical cubistic paintings that both artists were working on at this time.

Pablo Picasso; "Mandolin and Clarinet; 1913; painted wood and pencil.
Pablo Picasso; "Mandolin and Clarinet; 1913; painted wood and pencil.

In Glass Newspaper and Dice, Picasso used a few scraps of wood to fashion the form of a fluted and footed glass. The glass sits on a newspaper fashioned out of cut metal (from a metal can of powdered milk whose manufacturing embossing can be seen). The metal is curled and crumpled to provide more dimension and exploits the materials ability to hold form stiffly and permanently in a way paper cannot. The cube of a die is sitting to the bottom right. It’s top plane and left side are turned to meet the front plane which allows the viewer to see both the top and bottom at the same time in the classic bending of Cubist space. The whole work is painted in shades of grey except for a pattern of red dots in the upper left. These dots add texture, visual liveliness, and a bright relief from the unrelenting somberness of the drab coloration. Cubist painting had been noted for its drab and limited palette as the development of the new space had taken precedence over color.

The second box construction, Glass and Newspaper is conceived more sparingly and in a brighter palette of mainly green, which already signals a change in direction for Picasso. Here again is a simple still life of a stemmed glass sitting on a table with a newspaper. The only three-dimensional element is the glass, fashioned out of a rather flat piece of wood, and the box surround. All of the other elements of this cubist still life are painted. This makes the piece more of a painting with a collage element and less a sculptural work. The newspaper is represented on either side of the glass as painted white and black shapes. The black shape retains the “AL” of the word “JOURNAL” that serves to identify it as a newspaper. The top of the glass is represented as a circle with painted dots turned parallel to the front plane which seems a clumsy attempt at formulating this cubist element. Similar dots in the same color palette surround the glass on both sides. This texture of yellow and black not only work as the back and sides of the of the glass, but also embody the movement of the effervescent liquid inside of it offering a visually kinetic dimension to the piece. Again, the yellow and black colors brighten the tonality of the entire piece.

Neither of these works were considered important by Picasso. They were experimental dead end attempts to find a three-dimensional cubist language. These small works were placed in storage in his studio and forgotten. Neither were shown until his 1966 exhibition Homage to Pablo Picasso. Even then Picasso had to repair them for them to be ready for exhibition. These box constructions are a curiosity in Picasso’s oeuvre. These seem to be the only works of the artist to have used the box as a constraining and unifying element. They are not big, nor do they have much presence. While they use the language of the cubist still life that Braque and he contrived, they are far simpler in concept than any of the bolder and larger still life paintings that are now considered masterpieces of the genre.

Both the path to Cubism and Picasso’s sculptural style are convoluted. For Cubism, the thread is tangled up with the African tribal art and Iberian sculpture of antiquity. Still the greatest contributor to the Cubist inception was the landscape work of Paul Cezanne. Braque’s inventive reading of Cezanne’s painting sparked the idea for a modern way of conceptualizing form in space; a way to depict on the flat surface of the picture plane, all sides of an object at once. Braque found in Picasso a mind hungry for and open to new ideas in art, the two artists began a dialog and collaboration that would culminate in ending the tyranny that the realistic depiction of perspective space had had on Western art nearly since its inception. Cubism more than Impressionism and the Fauves, freed Western artists from the expectation of the picture as a window. Picasso and Braque accepted and promoted that the flat surface of the canvas was a valid space to exploit the possibilities of visual expression.

Picasso’s impulse to create sculpture was also a wending way, not always punctuated with successes. Trained as a painter, he found the traditional media of stone, and wood resistant to his limited modeling skills. He grew frustrated with each material as they resisted forming his ideas under his hand. Partnering with Braque, he found his way with the cutting and forming of paper into sculptural forms. Soon he was able to augment paper to include found wood, cut sheet metal and other collage materials into his art as suggested by Braque’s training as a decorator. Cubist painting gave him a more solid foundation for his cubist sculptural concepts. It lent itself readily to three dimensional forms. Even so, Picasso’s early compositions in three dimensions clung to the format of the relief. For a while, he had a difficult time divorcing himself from the hold of the painting on a wall. This would become a limitation for Picasso. His artistic vision was tied to art as painting and to art based in nature. As he found it difficult to divorce himself from art displayed frontally, which over time he would be able to overcome, so he found it impossible to sever his ties to art based in nature. For all his abstraction and manipulation of objects in a still life or in the human form, Picasso could never make the leap into pure abstraction. This would ultimately date his work and leave him behind as a pioneer in the ever-expanding world of contemporary art. Still, his cubist inspired works show his daring. His and Braque’s cubism forged the way for Western art to move forward and away from the holdfast of naturalism. Cubism idealized the concept that art could be a place that would only be limited by the mind of the artist.

Arthur Bruso © 2022

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  • Arthur Bruso

Arthur Bruso ink wash drawing of three trees.
Arthur Bruso; Three Trees, ink on paper; 8.5" w x 5.25" h; sketchbook drawing.

Sketchbook Drawings

Despite being a photorealist artist when I began my career, I could not draw. I realized this in figure drawing class. My drawings were either sharply focused on a small detail of the body, or vastly out of proportion and having little to do with the actual proportions of human anatomy.

The disparity lies in the technique and process of photorealism. When working from a photograph, the most important aspect of rendering has been satisfied for the artist. The image is already flattened into two dimensions. After squaring the image with a grid (which is

mainly a method to enlarge a two-dimensional image) the artist concentrates on rendering the part of the image that falls in each square. The squaring breaks the image into manageable segments that are more easily worked. There is no need to consider the whole since the final composition of the image is already determined by the photographic source material. While the artist draws each bit of the image in each square of the grid, they are mainly copying tonalities and not the subject matter in real space. This is not to diminish the amount of time, concentration and effort that is expended to produce the final complete work. Following this process, I never developed the skills needed to transpose an object from three-dimensional reality onto the flat page. I never learned how to render an object in space, nor did I learn how to understand or determine the proper anatomical proportions. Understanding proportion in art requires a conceptual knowledge of how the various parts relate to the whole.

Having come through a college art program terminating with a Masters in Fine Art, I was still struggling with the basics of drawing. I decided to keep a sketchbook where I would practice the landscape to improve my drawing skills. I set myself a few parameters: I would use a small page to keep the drawings portable and I would work in ink with a large brush which would prevent me from getting bogged down in detail. These restrictions were modified over time as I experimented with different media: graphite, grisaille acrylic paint, and colored pencil in addition to ink wash.

The drawings presented here are some of the images that I made in the two sketchbooks that I worked in. From doing this work, I learned a lot about drawing. Most important was that working from life is far different than working from a photographic source. The transposition of three-dimension space into two-dimensional space is a different way of seeing than copying photographic tones that have already been flattened. Photographic space, which is monocular, does not have the quality of understanding the form in space that binocular, human vision does. Our eyes see an object from every angle all at once and our brain makes sense of all the visual information that our eyes convey by producing and image our consciousness interprets as a three-dimensional form in space. A camera only sees an object from one vantage point. It does not offer (and cannot provide in a meaningful way) all the visual information that the eyes provide, then the brain interprets. This difference in seeing affects the outcome of a drawing. The artist drawing a three-dimensional object, is not enslaved by the dictates of photographic space. Both near and far are seen in the same focus. Details can be sharpened or generalized depending on the artists need. In a photograph, time is stopped. In a drawing from life, time can be a factor that may be taken into consideration, or ignored – the sun moves in the sky, changing the lighting; the model moves slightly and the pose changes. These changes can be incorporated into the work, or they can be rejected.

Textures and light effects are easier to capture from a photograph than from life. A photograph can capture a finite and frozen amount of texture and light effects. In nature, the detail of texture and light can be infinite and overwhelming to the artist or fleeting and difficult to remember and capture. When drawing from life the artist must choose what to concentrate on and learn to depict it in a way that they find satisfying. This task is greatly simplified by working from a photograph since these phenomena are flattened, fixed, and made permanent. By concentrating on copying tones and honing in on a specific area, the effect of light and texture can be more easily reproduced. In the end, it is the artist who has control over what they depict and how it will be presented. That is where the artist shows his genius.

The drawings presented here have never been intended to be considered finished works of art. They are a glimpse into my continual process of learning to expand my skills, train my hand and whet my way of seeing. Hopefully, what I learn from them will become a part of my innate abilities and enrich the whole of my art practice.

Arthur Bruso; Birch Tree; ink on paper; 7" w x 5" h; sketchbook drawing.
Arthur Bruso; Birch Tree; ink on paper; 7" w x 5" h; sketchbook drawing.

Arthur Bruso; Sycamore Tree; ink on paper; 7" x 5"; sketchbook drawing.
Arthur Bruso; Sycamore Tree; ink on paper; 7" x 5"; sketchbook drawing.

Arthur Bruso; Forsythia Ink Wash; ink on paper; 7" x 5"; sketchbook drawing.
Arthur Bruso; Forsythia Ink Wash; ink on paper; 7" x 5"; sketchbook drawing.

Arthur Bruso; Wood in the Distance; colored pencil on paper; 8.25" w x 5.5" h; sketchbook drawing.
Arthur Bruso; Wood in the Distance; colored pencil on paper; 8.25" w x 5.5" h; sketchbook drawing.

Arthur Bruso; Evergreens; colored pencil on paper; 5.5"w x 8.25" h; sketchbook image.
Arthur Bruso; Evergreens; colored pencil on paper; 5.5"w x 8.25" h; sketchbook image.

Arthur Bruso; Forsythia Colored Pencil; colored pencil on paper; 8.25" w x 5.5" h; sketchbook drawing.
Arthur Bruso; Forsythia Colored Pencil; colored pencil on paper; 8.25" w x 5.5" h; sketchbook drawing.

Arthur Bruso; Sycamore and Pine; pencil on paper; 8.25" w x 5.5" h; sketchbook drawing.
Arthur Bruso; Sycamore and Pine; pencil on paper; 8.25" w x 5.5" h; sketchbook drawing.

Arthur Bruso © 2002

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  • Arthur Bruso

mexican ceramic figure of a Tlaloc impersonator from Veracruz with goggle eyes , holding a staff and a bag
Tlaloc Impersonator, Veracruz Mexico, c. AD 1-900, ceramic, collection of American Museum of Natural History.

Central Mexico is an area of great contrasts. There are a variety of climates from the tropical coast along the Gulf of Mexico to the central cooler, dry highlands. What connects them is the seasonal rains that have marked the beginning and end of the growing season for centuries. The rains begin in June and last until October. In November, the dry season begins, lasting until the rain begins again. For the ancient Mesoamericans who settled in this area and learned to grow maize, the coming of the rains meant that a new year of food would keep them from starvation. Ensuring the rains came became a major concern for the indigenous people. And making certain that the rains were ample, steady, and not flooding or destructive became a top priority. It was essential to their continued survival.

Two photographs. Left is the Mexican rainforest, right is the drier highlands.
The contrast of the Mexican lowland rainforest (left) and the drier highlands (right). Left, Rio Guayalejo. Right, Oaxaca.

Olmec jaguar god carved of green jade.
Olmec jaguar god carved in green jade. The Kuntz Axe, American Museum of Natural History collection.

The first recorded Mesoamerican people, the Olmec (c. 1,600 – 400 BC) conceived of a god that controlled the life-giving rains. Fashioned on the concept of the sacred jaguar, he controlled life and death, as well as all water as an aspect of the continuity of life. The jaguar is an apex predator of the Mexican rain forest. Its ability to disappear into the shadows, see in the dark and kill silently made it seem supernatural to the ancient Olmec. These magical characteristics were deemed the perfect qualities for a ruler, and they were also exemplary attributes for a superior god; a god who could control the most important necessities for Olmec survival: the water of life and the growing of maize. The Olmec fashioned images of their jaguar god out of green jade, emphasizing the huge, fanged maw and slanted feline eyes. The aqueous green color of the jade symbolized the water they wished to conjure. They devised rituals to appeal to the jaguar god asking to release the gentle rains that would nurture the crops and rejuvenate the land. When the Olmec mysteriously disappeared, they took the name of their god and the actions of their rituals with them. But the enigmatic jade images the Olmec left behind were prized by subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations. Their preservation through succeeding cultures as objects of magic and awe still fascinate us in modern times.

Ceramic urn of Cocijo.
Ceramic urn representing Cocijo held at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

This idea of a god that presided over water and the growing of crops was coopted by other civilizations of Mesoamerica that were influenced by the Olmecs. For the Zapotec (c. 700 – 1521 AD) people who settled further inland on the drier, cooler highlands, the Olmec jaguar god, became Cocijo. Cocijo was re-envisioned as being more serpent and less jaguar because of the difference in the living environment of the Zapotec. The jaguar thrives in the dark costal rainforest, but the dry, cooler, and sunnier savannah of the Mexican highlands is not conducive to rainforest or jaguars but is an ideal environment for snakes.

Since the jaguar was revered in all Mesoamerican cultures, some references to it were retained, as in the fangs. But it was the serpent or snake attributes that became dominant for the god now known as Cocijo. The snake was identified with lightening, storms, and the rejuvenation of the land because of the snakes’ propensity to shed their skin and seemingly renew themselves, while the form of lightening is reflected in their serpentine shape and quick movements.

Cocijo’s duties as a god remained the same – to provide the annual rainfall that would ensure success of the maize crop and keep the Zapotec people alive. But it was with the Zapotec that the rain god became associated with mountains. Mountains were observed by the Zapotec to be reservoirs of water because they were the source of rivers and the clouds and storms that often collected at their peaks. As the place and source of water, it was believed that the tops of mountains were the home of the god Cocijo the god of water. To be close to the god during their rituals and observances, the Zapotec built shrines for the facilitation of the ceremonies on the crest of mountains.

Sone carved with a relief of Tlaloc at a mountain shrine.
Part of an Aztec Tlaloc mountain shrine, showing a relief caving of Tlaloc on a rock in situ.

Blood1 which may have always been an aspect of Olmec rain god ceremonies, was equally as important to the Zapotec. Blood was viewed as the anima – the substance that gives us life. It became equated with corn since corn was also a life-giving substance. As corn nourished the people, so blood nourished the corn. Bloodletting rituals were vital to appease Cocijo and induce him to bring the rejuvenating rains. Personal prayers to Cocijo always were accompanied by bloodletting through the tongue or genitals. These places on the body were the most sensitive and would cause the most pain. Suffering, because of the psychic energy it expends, seems to be a necessity to attract the attention of the gods and prove the supplicant’s sincerity. Even more important than simply spilling living blood, was the need for child sacrifice. Children were the future of the civilization and its most precious commodity to ensure the continuation of life. As representations of the future and regeneration, they were magically related to the growth of the maize. Their sacrifice was considered a dept payment for the intercession of Cocijo to bring the rains, as well gratitude for his part in the creation of the world. The child’s blood and tears nourished the corn as the corn nourished the people. Their lives ensured that corn would be bountiful and sustaining.

Polychrome pottery urn of Aztec god Tlaloc.
Urn showing a depiction of the rain god Tlaloc. Polychrome pottery artifact originating from Mexico. Aztec Civilization, 14th-16th Century. Mexico City, Museo Nacional De Antropología (Anthropology Museum)

The Zapotec resisted invasion by the Aztec until the Spanish conquest of 1521, while the surrounding city state of Vera Cruz beginning in the 11th century and into the 1400s was absorbed into Aztec culture. Because of the proximity of the cultures, the influence of Aztec worship and their gods steadily crept into Zapotec life. The Aztec assimilated the some of the Zapotec concepts of Cocijo into their already existing rain god Tlaloc. These new attributes were absorbed into the Aztecs divine cosmos, then further transformed to conform to their spiritual sensibility. Some snake symbolism was retained but reduced to reemphasize Tlaloc’s jaguar origins. The most obvious physical change from Cocijo to Tlaloc was his distinctive goggle eyes. These round, ringed eyes became the defining feature of the Aztec rain god and betrayed his presence in all representations. The rings have been variously interpreted as drops of water, or a visual representation of the god’s ability to see under water, or the gods’ ability to see in the dark – all vital aspects of his supernatural power.

Originally, the goggle eyes seem to have been a distillation of the snake symbolism that had been part of the Zapotec god Cocijo. Cocijo’s eyes and nose were made up of stylized serpentine forms that circled around the eyes and ended with a viper’s snout (which has also been interpreted as a jaguar’s nose) where the nose would be placed. These and other snakelike forms on and about the god’s representations were an allusion to Cocijo’s association with lightening and storms. With Tlaloc, the rings around the eyes were refined from the snake iconography and seem originally to refer to Cocijo’s ability to conjure up lightening or shoot lightning bolts from his eyes. The jaguar features of the feline fangs and long tongue (and the notion of being able to see in the dark) as well as the personality traits of stealth and stamina, were restored from the original Olmec iteration of their jaguar god.

Tlaloc, like Cocijo still had to be supplicated with blood sacrifices, especially with the sacrifices of children. Blood was still considered to contain the vital anima that fed the corn as the corn fed the people. Tlaloc, like Cocijo was the creator of the landscape and the rain to nourish it. By allowing humans to use his creations of land and water, the people created a dept that the god demanded be paid by the sacrifice of their most precious commodity of youth and the future of the people.

Aztec painting depicting child sacrifice.
Aztec child sacrifices during I Atlcahualo: procession of priests with the child proceeds towards the mountain shrine (Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales, fol. 250r.

For the Tlaloc rituals, the children selected for sacrifice were from royal linage and dressed to resemble the god. The priests who carried out the ritual bloodletting also would dress as Tlaloc impersonators. This role play, besides the assumption that it would make the sacrificial victim and the ritual actions more acceptable to the god, also brought a greater sense of reality to the practice. The ornate costumes and pageantry of the ceremonies made a more palatable disguise for the distasteful reality of the gore and horror. It was considered an omen of a successful outcome if the children cried during the ceremony. Their tears meant that plentiful and nourishing rain would benefit the crops.

The seated figure from the Veracruz collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, depicts a child partly dressed for sacrifice to Tlaloc/Cocijo. His eye rings are the most distinctive indicator of his role. In his right hand he holds a staff. The serpentine shape of it suggests the lightning bolts that are linked with the god. In his left hand, he holds an incense bag that would contain the copal incense which when burned, would assist in carrying the soul of the victim aloft into the sphere of the gods. The child is depicted here as if he were content with their role of the savior of the people. This figure probably would have been dressed and decorated with paper clothing and feathers to further ornament it. Notably, there would have been some sort of lavish headdress to make it more fitting a presentation to and of the deity.

Ceramic head of Tlaloc impersonator showing eye rings.
Detail of Tlaloc Impersonator from the American Museum of Natural History showing eye rings.

It was the eye rings on this figure that caught my attention and caused me to question what these ornaments were for. My first assumption was that they were a lavish personal decoration for a person of noble birth. I believed that they were a representation of some ostentatious ornament to exhibit wealth and status among the Veracruz. The American Museum of Natural History's website has precious little information on this artifact to refute my presumption. Investigating further, I could find nothing about these eye pieces as an article of fashion among the Mesoamericans. But upon conducting research on another artifact in the Veracruz collection, I came across a photograph of a figure of a Tlaloc impersonator which pointed me in the right direction and to the true interpretation of these embellishments and their imitation of Tlaloc’s eyes. The object was a clay figure of an adult Tlaloc impersonator, probably a priest, sculpted as dressed in the paper ritual costume of Tlaloc with the requisite eye rings. This figure was the clue that sent me in the proper direction of my inquiry into what these eye ornaments were for.

Seated ceramic figure of Tlaloc impersonator.
Adult Tlaloc impersonator or priest. Ceramic, 18.5" tall, Veracruz, Mexico.

As much as we find human sacrifice abhorrent, most Mesoamerican cultures practiced it as the main way of supplicating and appeasing their gods. The life energy it released was considered necessary payment for the good graces hoped for from the targeted deity. Without this spilling of blood and releasing of the anima, the Mesoamerican universe would cease to exist. The sun would not rise, the rains would not come, pestilence would fester and devastate the populations. The god who was the jaguar god of the Olmec, Cocijo of the Zapotec, and Tlaloc of the Aztecs demanded child sacrifices to bring the crop saving rains. The very crops that were necessary for the people to survive, and needed the annual rains to grow, would fail if the rejuvenating energy of the children were not discharged to placate the god of rain. But it was not one child each year, it was five each month from harvest until the rains came that were needed to ensure the proper cycle of the world. The Aztecs believed that a child had to be offered to Tlaloc in each of the five directions (north, south, east, west, and upwards to the sun). This loss of life and great loss to their community’s generational future, was necessary to keep the world in order. It was their dept payment for the gods creating the world and the universe and allowing the people to live in it. In our modern times, there is no longer the belief that we, the population of the world, need to pay our debt to any gods. The idea that we are beholden to any supernatural forces that could lay claim to our existence many now think of as absurd. Science has shown us that all the matter in the universe has been created by elemental forces, not by supernatural powers. We believe that we evolved through natural processes and dismiss the old gods as superstition. But our hubris may be catching up to us through our careless disrespect of our planet. The world is no longer in order, and we must devise new rituals and ways of thinking to make it right again.

Arthur Bruso

1. Johanna Broda, Processions and Aztec State Rituals in the Landscape of the Valley of Mexico, Penn State University Occasional Papers in Anthropology No. 33 (2016)

© 2022 Arthur Bruso

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