INTERVIEW OF JEAN CHARLOT AND WALTER HEIL BY ERIC BODEN
No. 3 KFRC
July 25, 1942
ANNCR: Pacific House is on the air! Every Sunday at this time, Pacific House of San Francisco brings you a program devoted to some aspects of life and art in Latin America presented by leading authorities in this field. Today we turn our attention to the Precolumbian Art Exhibit which is currently being featured at the de Young Museum. Dr. Walter Heil, the director of the museum, is here with this afternoonÕs guest of honor––the distinguished artist, Jean Charlot. But first here is Eric Boden, who will act as master of ceremonies in the discussion.
BODEN: Thank you. My role today is very simply that of the layman, and my first duty is to present our authorities. Dr. Walter Heil needs no introduction to northern California audiences, and his guest, Jean Charlot, is the distinguished contemporary artist from Mexico. Among many other things, Mr. Charlot is a specialist on fresco painting. Just now he is giving a course for the art department of the University of California on the ÒGreat Masters.Ó For the Carnegie Institution, he did excavation work in Yucat‡n and is the author of Art from the Mayans to Disney. He has painted murals in many parts of the United States, and of course, his famous murals in Mexico City were among the first of this modern movement of the Americas. Now I see Dr. Heil wants to add something to that.
HEIL: Well, I would like to add a great deal, but Mr. Charlot has warned me not to. So let me say just this: IÕm most happy that he has been able to join us on the program this afternoon, and I am going to ask him a lot of questions!
BODEN: Is that all right with you, Mr. Charlot?
CHARLOT: Well, when youÕre on the witness stand, you have no choice in these matters. But IÕll try to do my best.
BODEN: Dr. Heil, before you ask any questions yourself, IÕd like you to answer one about the exhibit which is now at the de Young Museum. ItÕs called a Precolumbian exhibit. Now what is Precolumbian art?
HEIL: It is the art that existed here in the Americas before the discovery of the new world by Columbus. And thatÕs where it gets its name—Precolumbian. But for practical purposes, we usually regard the period of Precolumbian art as ending with the coming of the Spaniards under Cortez in 1519. Mr. Charlot can tell us where these objects were found.
Charlot: Well, the sculpture was found in the ruins of palaces, and the smaller objects were found in graves. They had been placed there as part of the ceremonies of the period. The textiles you see at the de Young Museum were usually found wrapped around mummies.
HEIL: How do you explain the great variety in Precolumbian art?
CHARLOT: ItÕs mostly the matter of area. Just like in the Mediterranean Basin, for instance, youÕll find art styles that are very different and diverse. Some of the Precolumbian objects have been found as far apart as four thousand miles. And in the whole period of fifteen hundred years, thereÕs a tremendous variety––from pieces that are almost classical to others which are modern in treatment.
BODEN: Mr. Charlot, who were some of the artists of the Precolumbian period?
CHARLOT: We know their work, but not their names. You see, they never signed their work, so they have to remain anonymous. However, we do know that there were craft guilds in the Valley of Mexico and among the Incas: for example, metal workers, wood carvers, mosaic workers, and so on. Certain districts were noted for certain specialties.
BODEN: Dr. Heil, you were going to say something?
HEIL: I was just going to ask Mr. Charlot to tell us about the difficulties under which these artists worked. I mean the tools they had to use.
CHARLOT: Oh yes, that is an important point, because these Precolumbian artists had no metal tools. They had only stone hammers, chisels, axes, and blades like those of neolithic Europe. And yet, in spite of this very limited equipment, they worked with even the most difficult stones like obsidian, which rival those of China and Egypt. YouÕll find in most of the work of this Precolumbian period very superior technical skill.
BODEN: Mr. Charlot, IÕm just wondering, how did those artists manage to make holes in the stone they were working on?
CHARLOT: Oh, they had reed drills for that purpose, and with the reeds they used sand to bore the holes.
BODEN: I see. Well, getting back to metals or rather the lack of metalsÉdidnÕt I see gold objects in the exhibit out at the museum?
CHARLOT: Oh yes, simple hammered gold goes way back to the earliest times, in Peru, for example. And other metals have been worked upon with more advanced techniques. But bronze––that is true bronze––was known only around the Andes.
BODEN: By the way, Dr. Heil, I noticed in the exhibit several objects which were carved in what was described as jadeite. WhatÕs that?
HEIL: Well, as you saw, it looks quite like the more familiar Asiatic jade––perhaps a little bit duller in color. But actually, jadeite is of American origin and is distinct from Asiatic jade. ThatÕs proved by chemical analysis. However, Mr. Boden, arenÕt you forgetting something? Mr. CharlotÕs promise?
BODEN: His promise? How do you mean, Dr. Heil?
HEIL: Well, wasnÕt he the one who promised to answer questions?
BODEN: (Laughs.) Oh yes. But we canÕt let you off too lightly either. However, why donÕt you fire the next question?
HEIL: Well, I think it would be nice if Mr. Charlot would tell us how time was figured in the Precolumbian civilizations.
CHARLOT: Certainly. At the dawn of those civilizations there must have been astronomers of genius, for without telescopes they came to compute the course of the sun, and the moon, and of the planet Venus with more accuracy than did European classical civilizations and the Middle Ages. In fact, at the time that Columbus discovered America, the Mayan system of reckoning time was more accurate than that of Columbus, and it is only since the Gregorian corrections that the European system came to equal the Precolumbian one. Of course, the Indians had no watches, but could read time from the shadows cast by carefully orientated buildings. In Palenque, a group of temples was built thus, a kind of gigantic sun dial. And at ChichÕen Itza, there is an observatory with mathematically orientated openings through which the Indian astronomer could shoot at the moon and the stars, even in daylight.
BODEN: Well tell us, Mr. Charlot, when was the Mayan civilization at its peak?
CHARLOT: That was the time Europe was passing through the Dark Ages, when the land that was to become the United States had still a millennium of wilderness ahead. In the fifth century, the Mayan Empire was one of the most populated and refined places in the world. There were many highways built with the same care as the Roman highways, connecting many important towns. And it is said that those towns grew and grew until the buildings spread over all the arable land so that everybody were city people. There was no place for farmers or agriculture. And suddenly, for lack of grain, this whole civilization collapsed. There must have been huge migrations, towards less over-civilized places, and in a few years, the jungle reclaimed those cities. With a friend, I roamed in one of those ruined cities and entered its main palace, and in what must have been the throne room, there was only one being alive, a tiny honey bear. But the Mayan Indians still remember vividly their past, and the jungle explorer still finds, at the feet of the idols, offerings of copal put there by deer hunters to propitiate the gods.
HEIL: Well, didnÕt the Mayan civilization endure longer in North Yucat‡n?
CHARLOT: Yes, it did, but the Mayans were over-fond of astronomy, mathematics, and religion. They were not interested as much in weapons. Their most efficient one was the atl-atl, a kind of javelin thrower, propulsed by hand. Towards the end of their history, the Aztecs, who were a soldiery folk, attacked the Mayans with a powerful weapon that they lacked, the bow and arrow. And all the Mayan philosophy could not stop their mechanized thrust.
BODEN: I want to change the subject a little bit here, if I may, because everyone IÕve met who has seen the exhibit is talking about the codex that is right at the entrance. Dr. Heil, why is it so very important?
HEIL: Because this is the first time that an example of this art has ever been shown to the public in this country. This one is known as the Codex Fernandez Leal, and it is an historical record in picture writing. It was made in the pre-Spanish days by Mexican Indian artists. There are but few of these invaluable documents extant. Codex Leal is the only one in the United States. Another one, the famous Codex Porfirio D’az, is preserved in the National Museum of Mexico City. All the others are in European libraries.
BODEN: I know the many thousands who will see the exhibit would like to know more about this codex. How was it painted?
HEIL: It was painted with vegetable and mineral colors on sheets which look like paper. These sheets were presumably made from the fibers of the agave plant.
CHARLOT: Dr. Heil, I think you should tell the story of how this codex came to California.
HEIL: (Tells the storyÉmentions why Tompkins is not on broadcast.)
BODEN: ThatÕs very interesting. By the way, Dr. Heil, when visitors stand in front of this codex in the Museum, can they understand the story it tells?
HEIL: Yes, theyÕll see that it tells the history of an Indian tribe which migrated from Guatemala north into the Valley of Mexico. These wanderings presumably extended over centuries, so that the episodes you see depicted on the codex do not necessarily follow each other in immediate sequence. Together with easily recognized scenes of battles and other events, the codex contains symbols which indicate names of localities and places. The trail of the migrating tribe is marked by footprints. The main scenes depict battles, meetings, and sacred ceremonies. Despite their limitation and formal expression, the artists of the Codex Leal reveal a lively imagination and a keen understanding for the functional movements of the human body. For example, scenes like the one which shows a warrior standing on a bridge over a river between two hills, defending himself against a horde of enemies––most of whom he has already disposed of–– are at once amusing and amazing. It portrays a celebrated hero, comparable to Horatio of Roman fame. Among the many scenes of special interest on the codex, there are two of a human sacrifice, where a woman (or a man disguised as a woman, to represent the Earth Goddess) is offered as sacrifice to make the earth fruitful. This is called TlacacaliztliÉ
CHARLOT: I beg your pardon, I didnÕt get that!
HEIL: (Laughs.) Well, I donÕt know. I donÕt get it either. Why donÕt you tell us something about this Aztec language?
CHARLOT: Why, donÕt you speak Aztec?
HEIL: No, I donÕt!
CHARLOT: Well, of course you do––every time you ask for a chocolate soda.
HEIL: But I donÕt drink chocolate sodas!
CHARLOT: Well, even if you donÕt, IÕm sure your daughter does. You see, chocolate is an Aztec word: chocol means brown and atl means water. She asks for a soda with brown water in it. And coyote, copal, tomato, are also borrowed from the Mexican idiom. And we borrow also jaguar, pampas, quinine, tapioca from our Precolumbian brethren. Iztaccihuatl, Popocateptl.
HEIL: I beg your pardon!
CHARLOT: I was just giving you a sample of how Aztec sounds. It is the names of the two great mountains of the Mexican plateau. The White Woman and The Smoking Mountain, that is, a volcano.
HEIL: And which is what?
CHARLOT: Well, iztac means white; cihuatl, woman; tepetl means mountain, and popoca means the smoke that comes out of the volcano.
HEIL: I suppose such a language is not adaptable to modern ideas?
CHARLOT: Well, compound words would do it. For example, popoca, smoke, and cihuatl, woman, gives the word popocacihuatl that describes well a girl that is an inveterate chain smoker.
HEIL: We seem to be covering everything today! Mr. Charlot, did you notice the frogs in the exhibit?
CHARLOT: Yes, I did. Why do you mention them?
HEIL: Simply because I like frogs! In fact, IÕm the proud possessor of seven full-sized frogs that my child and I nursed from pollywogs to manhood.
CHARLOT: You love frogs and so did the Indian sculptors. They chose models very different from those to which Greek and Italian art has accustomed us. You remember in the exhibit that beautiful carving, in a hard coral tinted stone, that represents a flea. In the National Museum of Mexico, there are other fleas and grasshoppers and a great cucumber carved in precious green stone. These objects were carved directly. The Indian sculptor did not use a clay model as so many of our sculptors do, and because his carving tools were made of stone little harder than the stone they carved, he was forced to use a great economy of means. Many sculptures still show the shape and texture of the original rock. Modern artists, in their flight away from Renaissance standards, have seized eagerly on the style of those works.
BODEN: Dr. Hell, have you yourself any favorites in this show?
HEIL: That is not so easy to answer, because there are so many good things in the exhibition. It is hard to single out any one thing. I particularly like those magnificent Peruvian textiles. I like them in every respect. Their colors are soft and rich at the same time. Their design, with their formalized figures of men and animals, is ingenious and tasteful. Above all, the technical skill of these weavings is comparable, if not excelling, the finest similar things ever made in other parts of the world, like the Coptic textiles, the kelim tapestries of the Near East, and such. I also admire the various pieces of Peruvian pottery where designs similar to those used in the textiles have been applied in vivid colors to finely shaped vessels. Speaking of pottery, there is another item I am extremely fond of and which, due to its relatively small size, might escape the attention of the casual visitor. It is a vase made by Mayans, showing human figures and animals. In its space-filling composition and firm yet delicate draftsmanship, this piece, more than anything else, reminds one of the finest vases of GreeceÕs Golden Era. By the way, Mr. Charlot, isnÕt this also one of your favorites? Am I right in recalling that you used its design, in a fine line drawing of your own, as an illustration in your book From the Mayans to Disney?
CHARLOT: Yes, thatÕs right. I admire it very much. As it happen with Greek vases, this Mayan vase reflects the glory of the larger murals that adorned Mayan temples. And because Mayan and Aztec temples were thus adorned with paintings, the tradition has persisted to our day, and Mexican artists today––Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros––paint in fresco large walls. And the custom has crossed north over the Rio Grande. Many a United States post office could not boast of its mural decoration if it was not because of what the Mayans started some two millenniums ago.
BODEN: Well, thatÕs something to ponder on the next time we buy a postage stamp!
HEIL: Mr. Charlot, do you remember that Mayan head, jutting from the top of a high pedestal in the center of the exhibit? Do you think we have it at the right height?
CHARLOT: Yes, I think so, because it corresponds to the gargoyles on the cathedrals in the Middle Ages. They also had to be seen from below. This particular head may seem strange with its beak nose, popping eyes, receding forehead and chin. And yet it embodies the ideal of beauty of the Mayan people. The Mayans were not born that way, but the aristocracy could afford an expensive beauty treatment by which the childÕs skull was pressed into a tourniquet of planks and ropes so that his skull would grow in conformity with this idea. If the paint on this sculpture was still intact, we would probably find that the personage is cross-eyed. That was another much prized characteristic. Those customs may seem strange to us today, but who knows what the Mayans would say of our own permanent-waved and stream-lined beauties?
BODEN: Well, I know that both of you gentlemen could go on discussing this subject of Precolumbian art for a great deal longer, but IÕm afraid our time is almost up for today, and so weÕll wind up by recommending to our listeners that they visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and see the Precolumbian exhibit for themselves. It will be at the Museum until the end of August. And now, Dr. Heil, you wanted to say a final word?
HEIL: Yes, I would like to say that we of the de Young Museum are looking forward to presenting a comprehensive showing of Jean CharlotÕs work in the near future.
ANNCR: You have just heard another in the series of programs presented each Sunday afternoon at this time by Pacific House of San Francisco. Taking part in todayÕs discussion were Jean Charlot, distinguished artist, Dr. Walter Heil, director of the de Young Museum, and Eric Boden, radio coordinator of Pacific House.