Kimbell’s landmark Maya art exhibit now on display

K'in Lakam Chahk and Patlajte' K'awiil Mo[...] (Maya sculptors, active 8th century) Throne 1 Piedras Negras, Petén, Guatemala, 785 A.D. Limestone. (Approx.) H. 59 1/16 × W. 78 3/4 × D. 78 3/4 in. (150 × 200 × 200 cm.) Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City, Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes de Guatemala (MUNAE 614; Registry ab)

The Kimbell Art Museum’s newest exhibit, Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art, is now open and will remain on display through Sept. 3.

The acclaimed exhibition brings together nearly 100 rarely seen masterpieces and recent discoveries in Maya art – “one of the greatest artistic traditions of the ancient Americas,” according to museum officials.

Created by masters of the Classic period (A.D. 250–900) in the  royal cities of the tropical forests in what came to be Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, the landmark works evoke a world in which the divine, human and natural realms are interrelated and intertwined. Presented across diverse media that depict episodes in the life cycle of the gods, the exhibition offers compelling reflections on representations of the divine and new understandings of Maya creative practices and the artist’s role in Maya society, the museum said. Lenders include major museum collections in Europe, the United States and Latin America, with many works on view for the first time in the U.S.

Lives of the Gods offers an unprecedented view into the world of the ancient Maya and an exciting opportunity to expand our understanding and appreciation of Maya art,” said Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “These impressive loans from our esteemed collaborators from Mexico, Guatemala and international museums showcase the awe- inspiring world where the earthly and divine intersect in powerful statements about the universal order. We are delighted that the Kimbell will once again present a seminal exhibition of Maya art – especially during the museum’s 50th anniversary year.”

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Maya artists gave form to the gods in remarkably imaginative ways, through works of visual complexity and aesthetic refinement, the museum said. Exquisitely carved sculptures were believed to embody divine power and presence and skillfully carved ornaments of jadeite, shell and obsidian once adorned kings and queens, symbolically connecting them to supernatural forces. Finely painted ceramics reveal the eventful lives of the gods in rich detail.

Recent advances in the study of Maya hieroglyphs have made it possible to identify the names of dozens of artists from the Classic period, and this marks the first time in a major exhibition that any of their names will be identified on the accompanying exhibition labels. While artist signatures are scarce on ancient art across the world, Maya sculptors and painters did sign their works, sometimes prominently, on beautifully carved stone monuments and delicately ornamented vessels. Lives of the Gods includes four works by named individuals, as well as several examples attributed to Maya painters.

“One of the fascinating things about this exhibition is the number of works with artist’s signatures or attributions – a visual record indicating that Maya artists and scribes were held in high esteem and recognized as important in their own time,” said Jennifer Casler Price, curator of Asian, African and Ancient American art at the Kimbell. “Also, to have an exhibition where nearly half of the works have never been exhibited in the United States is truly astounding. This is a unique opportunity to not only see but to discover several iconic works of Maya art, such as the massive carved limestone Stela 51 from Calakmul, Mexico, but also to discover recently excavated works as well, like the set of five beguiling, ceramic lidded bowls adorned with animal heads from El Zotz in Guatemala.”

Lives of the Gods also highlights recent achievements in the conservation and preservation of key artworks, including the impressive Throne 1 from Piedras Negras. Through a collaboration among conservators at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the government of Guatemala and other scholars, the throne underwent a thorough technical examination to understand the residual pigments on the throne and determine the nature and origin of the stone from which it was carved.

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Conservation treatment stabilized structural issues of the fragmentary object, which had been deliberately destroyed in antiquity and reassembled after excavation in the 1930s. A new steel mount was created to support the throne during the exhibition as well as in earthquake-prone Guatemala to address the long-term preservation of the object. The reversible mounting technique used in the support structure provided an opportunity to correct the orientation of the throne’s legs, which recent epigraphic research had revealed were in reverse order.

Lives of the Gods continues the Kimbell’s dedication to collecting and exhibiting objects that tell the stories of cultures from around the world, the museum said. The exhibition follows the Kimbell’s history of important presentations of ancient American art, including The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art (1986); Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea (2010–11); and Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes (2013).

Additionally, four objects from the museum’s permanent collection – a pair of impressive censers stands and two intricately painted vessels – are part of this landmark exhibition.

Lives of the Gods is a partnership between the Kimbell Art Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the exhibition is on view through April 2, 2023.

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Visitor information: Admission to Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art is $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, K-12 educators, students and military personnel, $14 for ages 6-11, free for children under 6 and $3 for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients. Admission is half-price all day on Tuesdays and after 5 p.m. on Fridays. Admission to the museum’s permanent collection is always free.

The Kimbell Art Museum is open Tuesdays through Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fridays, noon-8 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving and Christmas. For general information, call 817-332-8451.

Information for this article was provided by the Kimbell Art Museum.