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 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.
* 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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