Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 20, 2018
Matthew H. Robb, ed. Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire Exh. cat. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017. 444 pp.; 350 color ills.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780520296558)
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: de Young, September 30, 2017–February 11, 2018; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, March 25–September 3, 2018; Phoenix Art Museum, October 6, 2018–January 27, 2019
Installation view, Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, de Young, San Francisco, September 30, 2017–February 11, 2018 (photograph © 2017; provided by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The publication of Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire and its accompanying exhibitions offers an extraordinarily comprehensive examination of one of the largest preindustrial cities in the world, its principal occupation lasting from 150 BCE to around 600 CE. Just as the ancient Mexican city drew people and resources from throughout Mesoamerica, the authors in the catalogue come from diverse nationalities and disciplines, and their essays synthesize explorations of Teotihuacan from the Aztecs to ongoing archaeological investigations. Those new to the wonders of this city as well as seasoned scholars of Teotihuacan will benefit from the text’s wide-ranging perspectives, lavish color illustrations, and the copious number of objects thoughtfully explained in the catalogue entries. Educators can easily use this as a manual for incorporating Teotihuacan into their classes.

Teotihuacan was largely unique in Mesoamerica both for its rigid-grid organization to which the vast majority of structures adhered and its dramatic north-south avenue that channeled movement through the public spaces. Just as the architecture shaped the movements of the city’s inhabitants, the organization of the exhibition catalogue mirrors the manner in which visitors, both ancient and contemporary, experienced the city. After introductory essays familiarizing readers with the architecture, social structure, and urban planning, the entries that follow start in the south at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, move north up the Avenue of the Dead to the Sun and Moon Pyramids, and then dissipate, like crowds after a civic ritual, into the apartment compounds where daily life took place. Sections on Teotihuacan religion and artistry conclude the essays. The catalogue of objects follows this same movement through the city from public spaces to private homes. Perhaps more than any other Teotihuacan exhibition, the effort to link objects with their original locations is more pronounced, reflecting a good deal of research to regain the histories of these artworks.

A characteristic of archaeological cultures is the excitement inspired by newly excavated materials and the resultant transformations of our understanding of the past. Engagingly, the volume’s essays consistently incorporate this thrill of discovery and lead readers to appreciate the continual evolution of knowledge about Teotihuacan. George Cowgill, one of the great veterans of Teotihuacan scholarship, walks the reader through the city’s history, but he capitalizes on his extensive experience with Teotihuacan to speculate on the political structures that led to its success, thereby establishing that our understanding of the past continually changes. Subsequently, Saburo Sugiyama theorizes that cosmological ideologies led Teotihuacanos to incorporate symbolic measurements into the structures they built on the city’s grid. Julie Gazzola, however, summarizes recent excavations under the Ciudadela, revealing that these early structures did not conform to the typical orientation, leaving readers to ponder the still unknown reasons for the ideological changes.

One of the great coups of the exhibition and volume, curated and edited by Matthew Robb, is the inclusion of materials from the highly publicized excavations of the manmade cave that Teotihuacanos created under one of their great plazas, which ultimately terminates in a tripartite chamber directly underneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. Heretofore known largely through news reports, Sergio Gómez Chávez’s poignant account of the cave’s discovery, his encounters with thousands of ritually deposited objects, and the final offering at the cave’s terminus of large greenstone figures, both male and female, convey not only Teotihuacan’s wealth and ideological complexity, but also the painstaking process of archaeology and the many years it will take to fully analyze the dizzying amount of materials pulled from the ground. This palpable sense of the new also characterized the exhibition at the de Young Museum. The first gallery featured rarely before seen objects from the tunnel, including those same greenstone figures with reconstructed necklaces and a backpack of precious objects over the shoulders of one sculpture. Equally moving were the dramatically lit conch shell trumpets displaying artistic styles from throughout the Mesoamerican region. The installation allowed visitors to experience that heady exhilaration of seeing something hidden from view for 1,500 years.

Other recent scholarship includes Linda Manzanilla’s current excavations at Xalla, a palace where ritual objects such as a calcite marble sculpture standing 128 cm tall was smashed and burned when an uprising targeted the elites of the city. Painstakingly reconstructed and displayed in the exhibition, the chisel markings mutilating its face stand as a testament to Teotihuacan’s fall. Discussions of recent explorations of Teotihuacan’s craftsmen by David Carballo and Gazzola feature materials often spurned by exhibitions favoring “high” art. Likewise, Diana Magaloni and Megan O’Neil present new scientific research on the techniques and materials used by Teotihuacan’s muralists and ceramicists.

Another major contribution of the volume is the consistent manner in which the authors offer updated analysis of earlier excavations. For example, Sugiyama, Rubén Cabrera Castro, and Leonardo López Luján recount their excavations of the Moon Pyramid but with attention to recent skeletal and materials analysis. They take the opportunity to compare the ritual deposits found there to offerings with similar characteristics recently excavated elsewhere at Teotihuacan. Nawa Sugiyama’s meticulous study of the animal remains cached within the Moon Pyramid vividly brings to life the drama of capturing wild animals and rearing them in a zoo until their dramatic demise through their sacrifice in a public ceremony. These reappraisals of earlier excavations are also enhanced with extraordinarily clear, full-color plans, which help convey the complexities of archaeological findings. Those teaching Teotihuacan art and archaeology will find them didactically useful. 

A notable aspect of the text is that the extended essays feature far more archaeology than art history, especially given that it accompanies an art exhibition. This reflects the cooperative relationship of archaeologists and art historians in Mesoamerican scholarship and the volume’s efforts to demonstrate that material objects were used by people to shape and conceptualize their world. That said, the section on Teotihuacan religion does offer assessments of the major deities worshipped at the ancient city. Jesper Nielsen, Christophe Helmke, and Robb familiarize the reader with the Storm God, the Old Fire God, the Maize God, and the Water Goddess. As with the rest of the volume, these authors deftly offer current understandings of these deities even as they acknowledge multiple perspectives where scholarly consensus has not materialized. For those unfamiliar with Teotihuacan, the book’s essays put forward a lucid picture of a complex city, while specialists and students of Mesoamerica will find excellent summations of current scholarship and extensive bibliographic resources for further in-depth research.

As for the exhibitions themselves, the physical characteristics of each institution shaped the display of the objects. The de Young Museum was more visually dramatic with richly toned walls that enhanced the grandeur of sculptural pieces. In places darkened, galleries with spotlighting evoked the mystery so commonly associated with archaeological cultures. In this venue, a defined path through a set of rooms allowed the curator to shape themes around sets of objects, although more explanatory text on the labels would have enhanced their educational value. Perhaps a minor quibble, but the accompanying audio guide featuring the museum director included mispronunciations and would have been better left in the hands of the curator. In contrast, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was a much larger open space where objects competed for the viewer’s attention. A massive screen displaying aerial footage of Teotihuacan at the beginning of the Los Angeles exhibition afforded some of the drama from the earlier venue, and the expanded labels provided greater clarity. In both locations, where possible, the histories of the objects informed their display. Thus, obsidian eccentric knifes found in situ arranged in massive radiating circles appeared in this pattern in large display cases, and small figurines found in a cache were displayed together so the viewers could discern their unified themes of women and childrearing.

In a similar fashion, the catalogue of the exhibition includes wonderfully clear and useful plans that plot the specific location of each provenienced artwork. Paired with thumbnail images of objects fully illustrated and explained in subsequent pages, the format allows readers to instantly conceive of the spatial distribution of Teotihuacan’s art. The format somewhat simulates online digital collections of museums and serves as a model for exhibition catalogues of the future. The de Young Museum also produced a website for the exhibition that includes basic information, excellent color graphics, and audio clips by the curator, which primary and secondary educators should find useful.

In the volume’s foreword, Mexico’s secretary of culture notes that just as Teotihuacan was an international city that attracted people from every corner of Mesoamerica, this exhibition represents the collaboration of scholars and government institutions on both sides of the Mexico-US border. Robb and others organizing the exhibition are to be commended for bringing these diverse voices together and offering the most expansive view of Teotihuacan ever seen in a museum setting. That some objects rarely displayed since their recent archaeological discovery received their first grand public exhibition in the United States is a testament to the possibilities of cooperation between these two countries, an important message in the current world. 

Annabeth Headrick
Associate Professor of Art History, School of Art and Art History, University of Denver