In look­ing closely at the Mimbres designs, I noticed some­thing … intrigu­ing. Well, all right, sev­eral things.

(This will have some images below the fold — some of them are fairly large.)

For starters, these peo­ple were not prim­i­tive, in the cul­tural or artis­tic sense. Some of the things they painted are strik­ingly rec­og­niz­able, despite the spe­cial­ized depic­tions and pat­terns put on them. Looking at their designs, I see a quail

a Gila monster

what looks for all the world like an alli­ga­tor snap­ping turtle

a bluegill

a tomato horn worm

and quite pos­si­bly a flounder.

Other images — bats, par­rots, mon­keys, lizards and so on — are just as rec­og­niz­able. They also did images of peo­ple doing daily things such as fishing.

Despite the super­fi­cial sim­plic­ity of their designs, though, it would be a mis­take to look on them as being some­how prim­i­tive or less-​​advanced works. The Mimbres style is dis­tinc­tive and appeared, from the begin­ning, to be quite highly devel­oped, right up until they stopped their art pursuits.

What hap­pened to them? I don’t think any­one knows, and while I’m sure at least some of their images had sym­bolic or spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance, I think it’s fair to judge that many oth­ers were sim­ply designs that looked pretty, and that they liked.

Consider the art fad that began as Deco, went on to Streamline and became Moderne. It lasted, in toto, per­haps 40 to 60 years, and was ubiq­ui­tous for a time — to the point that, an archae­ol­o­gist uncov­er­ing that art period 1000 years from now might just decide that it was the defin­ing mode of expres­sion for a culture.

Naturally that’s not the case; I just can’t get over the feel­ing that the Mimbres art was more or less the Mogollon ver­sion of the Deco move­ment. Consider, for instance, that most Deco images are heav­ily styl­ized — much like the Mimbres images — but still rec­og­niz­able. Archetypes, per­haps, or car­i­ca­tures of a sort.

It’s impos­si­ble (believe me) to gen­er­ate images that are so thor­oughly styl­ized and not know what you’re doing as an artist. The only way the Mimbres could have come up with such strik­ing — and instantly rec­og­niz­able — images was for them to study their sub­jects closely, under­stand the fun­da­men­tal shapes that lay behind their forms, and ren­der them in the most ele­gant way avail­able to their artis­tic idiom.

Primitive? No, this was an advanced cul­ture. They didn’t have machines, but they had func­tion­ing minds — an intel­li­gence at least as keen as anyone’s today — and I am quite sure they knew what they were doing when they made their strik­ing art.*

The sec­ond thing I noticed was that the Mimbres depicted ani­mals, bugs, peo­ple, the Sun, clouds … but no plants, and no rocks or land­scapes. I don’t know if that’s sig­nif­i­cant or not, but it feels like it ought to be. It seems as though they chose to paint things they believed were alive or ani­mate, and ignored the things that didn’t seem to have con­scious­ness or voli­tion. (When they weren’t paint­ing straight-​​up pat­terns, that is.)

For ani­mals and bugs this makes sense. I think it’s instruc­tive, though, that the Mimbres also painted celes­tial objects, and weather phe­nom­ena. This might give us a rather intrigu­ing insight into how they viewed the world around them.

I’m sorry there’s so lit­tle known about them today. As I began perus­ing their images a while back, I fell in love with the style almost imme­di­ately — and, by exten­sion, with the peo­ple, mys­te­ri­ous as they are.

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* Compare with the ancient Egyptians, who painted objects and peo­ple as flat­tened on walls. I read some­where once that this was delib­er­ate; they were attempt­ing to show how a three-​​dimensional object (such as a per­son) might be mapped onto a two-​​dimensional sur­face. That is, they were explor­ing flat­land long before Abbott.

This makes sense. The Egyptians must have had an extremely sophis­ti­cated under­stand­ing of three-​​dimensional space. Look at what they built, after all.

It grates me some­times how eas­ily we’ll judge the advance­ment level of an ancient cul­ture based on their art alone, as though pho­to­re­al­is­tic depic­tion is some­how the hall­mark of sophis­ti­ca­tion. What utter bullshit.

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