Arts Curriculum

Peoples and Societies of the Aztec World

Peoples and Societies of the Aztec World

Hunchback. Aztec, ca. 1500. Stone, 33 x 17 x 12 cm. Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH, Mexico City 10-97. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

By examining Aztec sculptures depicting the human form, we see a vivid and immediately recognizable portrait of daily life in a thriving metropolis. In stone and clay sculptors have depicted an urbane people in an ascendant society in a variety of poses: standing, seated, kneeling, crouching, or wearing an elaborate headdress. Some are stylized, such as fertility figures or figures of warriors; others, like the stone sculpture of a hunchback (ca. 1500), are more naturalistic, savoring the particular.

Aztec artists rarely, if ever, created realistic portraits of individuals, instead they relied on a standard repertoire of figure types and poses: seated male figure, kneeling woman, standing nude. Since the primary function of Aztec art was to convey meaning, the imagery was conventionalized. Standardized types of human figures represented rulers, warriors, priests, and a kind of everyman for commoner figures. Deities were identified by their dress and other accoutrements. Because Aztec sculpture was standardized, it is sometimes interpreted as being rigid, expressionless, stylized, conforming to a set artistic formula and established “rules” of representation.

At the same time, the Aztecs had an extensive and highly scientific understanding of the human body, and some Aztec sculptures are very naturalistic, displaying wrinkled foreheads, hunched backs, and gap-toothed grimaces as evidence that Aztec artists carefully observed their subjects.

Aztec artists did represent the human form in a wide variety of media and in a surprising range of styles. Among the most common representations in this exhibition are three-dimensional sculptures of the human form in stone and clay. These sculptures in the round represent commoners, warriors, gods, and goddesses.

For the Aztecs, the human body and spirit were intimately linked to the natural and supernatural world around them, so the state of their own being could have a direct impact on their surroundings. The aim, in all aspects of Aztec life, was to maintain natural harmony. A balanced body and life ultimately led to a balanced society and universe. Therefore moderation was advised in everything and excesses avoided for fear of upsetting the cosmic equilibrium.


Hunchback

This old stone hunchback with his bony rib cage and short limbs is a particularly good example of the honest and often humorous realism for which Aztec artists are today admired. He wears a loincloth and sports the hairstyle characteristic of warriors, with a lock of hair tied with cotton tassels on the right side of his head.

Hunchback. Aztec, ca. 1500. Stone, 33 x 17 x 12 cm. Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH, Mexico City 10-97. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

  • What is meant by the words stylized and naturalistic? Are there aspects of this work that seem stylized? What are they? Which aspects seem more naturalistic? Explain.
  • Compare this human figure with sculptural images of Aztec gods included in this guide. How do they differ? What are some reasons that they might be so different in appearance?
Hunchback. Aztec, ca. 1500. Stone, 33 x 17 x 12 cm. Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH, Mexico City 10-97. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías



Look through a magazine or newspaper and find examples of both naturalistic and stylized images. Discuss what attributes you considered in putting them in each category.

Visual Arts

Choose a single subject. It can be a person, but it can also be any other natural form, a flower, fruit, leaf, or animal. Create two works based on this subject, one stylized and the other naturalistic. The work can be three-dimensional or it can be a drawing. Which approach did you prefer? Why?

Visual Arts