The Painter-Turned-Archaeologist
Jean Charlot at Chichen Itza1

Donald McVicker, Ph.D.
North Central College

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Copyright 1999, Donald McVicker, Ph.D., North Central College
Please do not quote or paraphrase without acknowledgement

In 1971 Jean Charlot recalled how Dr. Sylvanus Griswold Morley came to Mexico to do work at the ruins of Chichén Itzá. Morley brought with him a full crew and a ten-year contract between the Mexican government and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. "The only thing he lacked was a draftsman to record the Mayan images. I got the job" (Morse 1976:46). As an artist on the archaeological staff he was to copy bas-reliefs and painted surfaces as they were brought to light by the diggers. Thus began an adventure for the "painter-turned-archeologist," which would last from 1926 to 1929 and would profoundly effect his life and art.

French-Mexican Charlot seems fated to have spent much of his adult life influenced by the ancient civilizations of Mexico. In The Mexican Mural Renaissance (Charlot 1963:9-10) he describes growing up in Paris, and how his "rattles and hornbooks" were the idols and Mexican manuscripts from his great uncle Eugene Goupil's collection. He also recalls that they were his "ABC's of modern art." Their forms and volumes prepared him to accept the radical cubisim that was to sweep the French art scene.

Young Charlot was so caught up with things pre-Hispanic that at the age of sixteen he wrote to the Bibliotheque Nationale asking permission to view and copy codices that had been donated by his great uncle Eugene Goupil. Although he appeared younger than his years, when he arrived at Bibliotheque he so impressed the librarian that he was admitted.

The influence of ancient Mexico on the impressionable youth did not stop with Eugene Goupil. Desiré Charnay, the internationally known French archaeologist, explorer and photographer of the ancient cities of Mexico was his grandfather's good friend and neighbor. M. Charnay re-enacted his jungle adventures for young Charlot, showed him his photos and even gave him his first pre-Hispanic artifact (Charlot 1963:179).

After art school in Paris, Charlot served in the French army during World War I, and then returned to the Paris art scene. In 1920 at an exposition of liturgical arts held at the Louvre he showed scale drawings for the mural decorations of a church. As Charlot recalled (1963:178) one reviewer commented that "'This artist deserves to be known as a fresco painter...'" Little did the reviewer know how well he had predicted the future.

Unfortunately the commission for the proposed mural never materialized, and Charlot found himself an artist without a wall. Paris seemed barren after his "mural fiasco," and with his father dead and his sister married, Charlot and his mother decided to go to Mexico. They landed at Veracruz in 1921 and went to Mexico City where they were received by Ramos Martínez, director of the San Carlos academy. In a little more than a year Charlot would finally be embarked on his first mural project.

At first Charlot assisted Diego Rivera. It was from Rivera that he must have received his first eye-witness account of Chichén Itzá and its awesome murals. Vasconcelos, the newly created Secretary of Public Education, had taken Rivera to Yucatán in late November of 1921. Charlot (1963:134) records that Rivera "stood in awe inside the precious inner chamber of the Temple of the Tigers, still ablaze with twelfth-century frescoes" - battle scenes that Charlot himself would carefully trace before the decade ended. Later Charlot (1963:4) would consider the role "this battle piece" played during the formative period of the modern mural movement.

As a young painter in Mexico, Charlot was swept up in Mexicanidad - the search for common spiritual and aesthetic denominators which would establish a racial aesthetic tradition (Charlot 1972:3). Charlot, like Rivera, Siqueiros and Tamayo, used indigenismo ("Indianism") as a major theme in his artistic works. Rivera even went so far as to see echoes of the Chichén Itzá murals in the folk art of religious retablos. As José Clemente Orozco (1962:87) recalls, Charlot "used to go along with us to the Museum of Archeology, where the great Aztec sculptures are on view. They impressed him profoundly and we would talk for hours of that tremendous art, which comes down to us and outstrips us, reaching out into the future. Pre-Cortesian art influenced him to such an extent that his painting is still saturated with it."

It was not simply that pre-Hispanic art influenced Charlot. His early experiences in Paris, cubism, and indigenismo in Mexico opened his eyes to a new aesthetic. It is not so much that "cubists" were inspired by the blocky forms and flat planes of Aztec art, but that they were predisposed to see the aesthetic qualities of ancient stone sculptures (Charlot 1972:35). Once open to the qualities of these monumental works of art, the muralists were further taken with (and avidly collected) smaller clay sculptures, particularly from the states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit. In fact, referring to his 1934 print "Coiffure: Idols" Charlot (Morse 1976:139 [#234]) gives full credit to the "great Tarascan terracotta" that not only served as a model for the print, but also was "one of the things that really formed me."

For some observers the muralists became too enamored with their pre-Hispanic models. When he left Mexico, this reputation followed him to the United States. Charlot (Morse 1976:123) recounts an anecdote from his days in Los Angeles working with the printer Kistler. Apparently Kistler expected him to bring a Maya antiquity to copy, and when he did not, Kistler gained confidence in him as an artist.

With Charlot's background and artistic attachment to Mexicanidad and indigenismo, an offer to be part of the scientific recovery of ancient Maya civilization must have proven irresistible.

Digging in Yucatán

Sylvanus G. Morley had been anxiously waiting for more than a decade to obtain a concession to dig at Chichén Itzá. Finally in 1923 the concession was signed and, backed by the wealth and prestige of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, he gathered his staff. By winter of 1924 Morley and his field director, Earl H. Morris, began preliminary survey and excavation. They decided to test an area on the northeast edge of the great plaza where long lines of stone columns appeared above the surface. Subsequent digging revealed a great court surrounded by "a thousand columns" flanked by temple mounds and pyramids.

In January of 1925 the Carnegie Institution expedition returned full-force for the first of four full seasons of intensive excavation and reconstruction. Their target was an enormous tree-crested mound adjacent to the northwest corner of the court of the thousand columns. When the excavations and restorations were completed the "Temple of the Warriors" would stand again in all its former glory.

When Jean Charlot arrived to begin his copies of the multitudinous sculptured columns surrounding the Temple of the Warriors, he encountered Ann Axtell Morris, wife of the project director. Although Mrs. Morris lacked any formal schooling in art, except for some on the spot training by the copyist Joseph Lindon Smith, she had been chosen staff artist. In fact, she considered her lack of schooling an advantage; without any established technique or preconceived notions she became a "Maya painter" (A. Morris 1931:171).

Although Charlot is silent on his relationship in the field with Ann Morris, Mrs. Morris is not reticent. When he chose to help her with the first mural from the Temple of the Warriors that was being pieced together from fallen blocks, they began a wrangling relationship which led to battle after battle. Ann Morris (1931:174) describes Jean Charlot as her "favorite enemy," but at the same time she acknowledges a debt of gratitude to him.

Although they squabbled over how the stones from area 31 were to be joined, they soon found that if Charlot shared his knowledge of costume variation on the sculptured columns with Ann Morris's knowledge of costume variation on the emerging mural, they could learn something about ancient Maya society; together they were able to identify common features which corresponded to various occupations and social classes. Even this endeavor could be frustrating and lead to new tensions. Ann Morris recounts (1931:185) how she once sweetly inquired of her harassed co-worker, "'Jean, what would you say if I were to show you a figure with a death god's head, a warrior's quilted defensive sleeve, a jaguar's clawlike hand, a priest's long dress, and a god impersonator's sandals?' Jean threw up his hands, stared at me with glassy eyes, and then with the single-minded purposefulness of those going quite mad, put on his hat and left the building."

In addition to copying and studying the bas-reliefs from the Temple of the Warriors and helping put back together again the mural from area 31, Charlot was involved in two additional major projects at Chichén Itzá: tracing the murals in the Temple of the Jaguar, and copying the murals in the Temple of the Chacmool buried beneath the Temple of the Warriors.

In 1926 Charlot and Ann Morris began the formidable task of tracing from the original the murals in the upper Temple of the Jaguar, those that had so impressed Diego Rivera in 1921. These murals, overlooking the great ballcourt, seem to have had a more profound effect on both the thought and work of Jean Charlot than any of the bas-reliefs, sculptured columns, and murals from the Temple of the Warriors group. He wrote of them in his article "A Twelfth-Century Mayan Mural" which first appeared in the Magazine of Art (November 1938), was reprinted in Art From the Mayans to Disney (Charlot 1939:26-41), and was included in Charlot's collected essays (1972:47-57).

The only puzzling fact is that neither Charlot nor Morris mention the superb copies made by Adele Breton less than a generation before. Although unpublished they were certainly known, and copies existed at Harvard's Peabody Museum (Miller 1978:121-154; Coggins and Shane III 1984:157-165). One can only speculate that as an artist-turned-archaeologist, Charlot would recognize that the act of copying puts one in touch with the data in a way that viewing the originals or exact copies can never do.

The sensitive analysis made possible by exact tracing is nowhere more evident than in Charlot's article referred to above. He uncovers the artists' techniques, from the original outlines to the brush that was used. He recognizes the formal properties of circles and straight lines represented by circular shields and linear lances. He considers perspective and concludes that the artist violated Western ideals because he "... fit his mural to the problems of architecture and point of view." He measures proportions, and is able to compare the elongated and refined figures with the short and "primitive" figures he has copied at the Temple of the Warriors. He speculates that these stylistic differences marked a chronological sequence, a speculation now supported by the re-dating of his twelfth-century murals to the ninth century. His appreciation of proportion and composition and how these affected his own work is discussed in the conclusion.

Charlot was, of course, more than a copyist. He was always an artist first. He also used his time at Chichén Itzá to produce sketches for himself. He refers to these sketches as neither facsimile copies nor free interpretations. In 1935 he exhibited them in New York for the Cane School of Art (Morse 1976:149 (#250]).

During the next season at Chichén Itzá, beginning in January 1927, a most exciting discovery was made at the Temple of the Warriors. It had been suspected that an earlier temple had been covered up by the one they were excavating. This proved to be true, and in one of the most remarkable excavation feats in Mexican archaeology, Morris and his crew were able to excavate and restore the buried temple without destroying the one which covered it. The preservation of the paintings in this "Temple of the Chacmool" was better than any previously known. Ann Morris (1931:246) describes how " Long before the work... was completed, Jean and I moved in with our painting materials." The work turned out to be more than even the most dedicated pair of copyists could handle, and Charlot sent for Lowell Hauser, a painter he had known in Mexico.

Hauser and Charlot shared a hut and continued to work together into the 1928 season. They even "entertained" other artists who visited the digs. Orozco (1974:42, n. 26) introduced them to the English artist Leon Underwood, for whom they slung a hammock (Morse 1976:49 [#77 "Hammock"]). Poor Underwood spent the night dreaming that a giant jaguar with luminous eyes was watching him from the bush.

All was not work at Chichén Itzá. Trips were made to other ruins (Charlot 1972:64-65, "Sketch of Native Guide on Expedition to Coba-Macanxoc, 1926"), and amateur theatricals were performed. In 1927 Charlot cut a stencil (Morse 1976:43 [#70]) of a Mayan head as a small poster to advertise "The Rise and Fall of the Mayan Empire." The performance took place at night in the great ballcourt with the archaeologists as actors with masks. Charlot recalls that the Maya from many villages came and enjoyed it!

Recreational activities also included a swim in the sacred cenote of sacrifice. Ann Morris (1931:187-211 [ch. XIV]) vividly describes this adventure and identifies Charlot as one of the protagonists. She pictures Charlot as the former boxing champion of his regiment, and declares that he "had claim to a strength of arms and shoulders belied by his present profession."

Publications

Charlot's field work concluded in 1928, and he began preparations for publication. In September of 1928, Charlot and his mother left Mexico for New York. Their close friend José Clemente Orozco met them, and they found a small apartment. Their brief stay ended tragically, for in January of the harsh winter of 1929, Señora Charlot died of pneumonia. Earl and Ann Morris stepped in and took care of him after his mother's death, and took him to Washington to ready the field report for the Carnegie Institution (Orozco 1972:22).

The resulting 1931 publication, The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, is a classic in its field. It consists of two volumes, one of text and one of plates. Jean Charlot is listed as a co-author along with Earl and Ann Morris. Earl Morris, recognizing their partnership wrote

Two great divisions of that which the following pages record lay entirely beyond the province of the present writer, namely Bas-Reliefs and Mural Paintings. These were intrusted to Jean Charlot and to Ann Axtell Morris, respectively. The devotion, skill and acumen which they lavished upon their separate, though related studies, both in the field and at the desk may be judged from those sections of the present volume which flowed from their pens and from the color plates which are the product of their brushes (E. Morris, Charlot and A. Morris 1931:7).

Referring to Charlot's work in particular, Earl Morris goes on to state (1931:8), "In his section M. Charlot has subjected to critical analysis the great number of bas-reliefs which it fell to his pen and brush to reproduce. His findings contain a wealth of information for those concerned with the indigenous art of the New World."

Charlot's section of the report, "Bas-Reliefs from the Temple of the Warriors Cluster," totals over 100 pages of text and over 100 plates. Charlot adds that

... the copyist's work was not concluded in the field. Given the unusual and most delicate relation of color to line on the originals, in which the painted version does not always coincide with the sculptured, he thought it advisable to work on the lithographic color version, himself fixing the color outline on the 141 plates necessary for these reproductions. The result is as accurate as could be procured (E. Morris, Charlot and A. Morris 1931:232).

It is interesting to note that in 1971 Charlot (Morse 1976:47) felt that this Carnegie Institution publication was perhaps the last to be illustrated mainly with drawings. He had earlier remarked (Charlot 1972 [1938]:49) that "... a patient study through careful tracing does more justice to the work than does direct photography."

Charlot's expertise as a painter-turned-archaeologist was still being called upon fifteen years later with the publication of Sylvanus G. Morley's magisterial work The Ancient Maya. Charlot prepared a series of line drawings illustrating the cutting of stones and their use as building blocks; these prints are still being featured in the fourth edition (Morley, Brainerd and Sharer 1983). In 1947 Charlot (1972:58-63) reviewed Morley's work for the Magazine of Art (July 1947) and once again revealed his sensitivity to the artifact as more than scientific data. In his essay he argues that Morley's book came within the scope of art review because, "... the maze of evidence through which the researcher wades before attributing a date to a stela, interpreting a codex, or rebuilding a ruined temple, is mostly a conglomerate of art objects."

Conclusion

Charlot is unique in that he is the only well known artist of his era in Mexico who worked directly as a member of scientifically conducted archaeological expeditions. As a result of his experiences he could speak and write with an authority and understanding of art, archaeology and ethnology beyond that of any of his peers. His experiences taught him to critically examine the archaeologists' impact on pre-Columbian art history. As he remarked in his essay "Mayan Art" (Charlot 1972 [1935]:39), "The study of Mayan art and the appreciation of its monuments have been left wholly to the taste of the scientists, and those precise gentlemen... too often overlook its beauty to indulge in technical discussions which make the layman yawn." Later, in the same essay, he refers to "the archaeologist, innocent of aesthetic training" looming as a dictator, and imposing his taste for the later "rococo" manifestations of Maya art at the expense of the classic manifestations of Mayan art "less luxurious but wealthier in human values," and guided by a "sober taste." Charlot counts the fresco paintings of Chichén Itzá with this classic expression which "palpitates a spirituality."

Charlot's aesthetic appreciation of the murals was in part inspired by the elongated proportions of the figures which at first led him to question "How such languid-looking androgynes were able to build and keep in working order the complex machinery of their society..." However, he concludes that "this is better understood by those who have seen Mayan masons lazily lift and carry on their heads weights under which one of our strong men would stagger" (Charlot 1963:3).

Charlot's admiration for the grace and skill of Maya builders past and present is expressed in a series of well-known prints and paintings. He notes in the first "Builders" print to be catalogued by Morse (1976:45 [73], "Small Builders") that "This shows our Mayan workers lifting carved stones. There's an obvious parallel to the original pyramid builders." "Small Builders" becomes "Great Builders" I and II (46-47 [#74-75]). Two years later, in 1929, both "Small" and "Great" are repeated (52 [#81]; 54-57 [#83]), and in 1930 an oil painting was produced (Claudel 1935:43). Reworking of this theme continued (#91, 93, 133, 148) until in 1933 he created "Three Pyramid Builders" (122 [#206]). Charlot's comments in 1971 on "Three Pyramid Builders" (Morse 1976:122) reveal the enduring impressions he retained of events which occurred over forty years before: "Besides archaeology, we had live workers for models, who were of pure Mayan stock. They carried stones with the same gestures we saw in the bas reliefs. In some of the lithographs I made a point of having a bas relief look like a portrait of the live worker."

Although the elongated Maya figure may have become exhausted as an aesthetic theme, the Maya profile continued to haunt Charlot. In his comments on another print from 1933 "Cargador at Rest" (Morse 1976:123 [#207]), he admits it is a "mixture of things" Aztec and Maya because he was "still mixed up with the Mayans as far as the profile goes." As late as 1937 he would still etch a "Mayan Head" (209 [#392]).

Charlot as an artist constantly played back and forth between archaeology and ethnology. Not only was he acutely aware of continuities in form between builders ancient and modern, but he also observed the same continuities in daily life. In 1946 he wrote (Charlot 1972 [1946]: 183), "The scenes sculptured and frescoed on ancient monuments are enacted daily in Indian huts and Indian fields. In Chichén Itzá, in the Court of the Thousand Columns, a stuccoed name glyph shows a hand kneading dough over a stone metate. In nearby huts... living hands perform the same task daily."

As an artist, Charlot felt that science alone could not penetrate the secrets held by the ancient Maya. In his review of the Yucatán prints by another outstanding artist, Alfredo Zalce, Charlot (1972 [1946]):183) writes, "Try as they may, neither archaeologist nor ethnologist has pinned down by statistics of factual minutiae the spiritual complexities of the Maya..."

Charlot's observations of modern Maya life were also captured by pen and brush. Perhaps most memorable was his encounter with Mayan men returning from a night of hunting. Although mauled they triumphantly carried their jaguar prey (Orozco 1974:19-20). This became the subject for his 1929 "Leopard Hunter" (Morse 1976:52 [#80]; 102 [#136]). He first attempted a painting of this "tiger hunter" scene, but subsequently destroyed it; however he succeeded with the lithograph (Orozco 1974:59, n. 45).

Other scenes immortalized by Charlot include his "Worker Drinking" (Morse 1976:58 [84]) which he describes as from Chichén Itzá - "another print on a Yucatán theme." And beyond the Yucatán, in a scene from the Mexican Highlands "Mother Giving Breast" or "Temascal" [sweat bath], he sums up his inspirations as being, "...very much tied up, like all the things I do, with Indian life, ancient traditions" (Morse 1976:146 [#245]).

All his life Jean Charlot was caught in the creative tension between what he referred to as the "Renaissance norm" and new ways of seeing and appreciating the world. The Chichén Itzá experience was an essential step in his search for a balance between the aesthetic of the pre-Columbian world and that of Europe. His own difficulty in escaping the "Renaissance norm" is revealed in his essay "Who Discovered America?" (Charlot 1972 [1953]:27-38). Charlot was working with Morley in the inner chamber on top of the Temple of Warriors when the slab of the main altar was discovered. This slab was supported by seventeen stone atlantean figures. "Out of these seventeen pieces, all related in craft and style, we at once picked one as a masterpiece, neglecting the other sixteen. We called the elect the 'Mona Lisa of Chichen-Itza'; it was photographed and published, and became mildly famous. Years after, reflecting on the choice, I realized that our 'Mona Lisa' was the only one of these statuettes whose lips curled upwards!" (Charlot 1972:35).

REFERENCES CITED

  1. Charlot, Jean
    1939 Art from the Mayans to Disney. London, Sheed and Ward.
    1963 The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920-1925. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.
    1972 An Artist on Art. Collected Essays of Jean Charlot. Volume II Mexican Art. Honolulu, University Press of Hawaii.

    Claudel, Paul
    1935 Jean Charlot. Paris.

    Coggins, Clemency C. and Orrin C. Shane III (eds.)
    1984 Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichén Itzá. Austin, TX, University of Texas Press.

    Miller, Arthur G.
    1978 "Capitanes del Itzá: Evidencia mural inédita de Chichén Itzá." Estudios Cultura Maya II: 121-154.

    Morley, Sylvanus G.
    1946 The Ancient Maya. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.

    Morley, S. G., George W. Brainerd and Robert J. Santley
    1983 The Ancient Maya. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.

    Morris, Ann Axtell
    1931 Digging In Yucatan. Garden City, NY, Doubleday, Doran.

    Morris, Earl H., Jean Charlot and Ann Axtell Morris
    1931 The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá, Yucatan. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication No. 406, Vol I and Vol. II Plates.

    Morse, Peter
    1976 Jean Charlot's Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné. Honolulu, The University Press of Hawaii and the Jean Charlot Foundation.

    Orozco, José Clemente
    1962 José Clemente Orozco: An Autobiography (translated by Robert C. Stephenson). Austin, TX, University of Texas Press.
    1974 The Artist in New York: Letters to Jean Charlot and Unpublished Writings, 1925-1929 (letters and unpublished writings translated by Ruth L. C. Simms). Austin, TX, University of Texas Press.

Donald McVicker recently retired as Professor of Anthropology/International Studies, North Central College, Naperville, IL. He received his Ph.D. in Anthroplogy from the University of Chicago. He has worked extensively in Mexico and has specialized in the archaeology and art history, particularly on the analysis of pre-Columbian murals. Professor McVicker is also known for his research on the history of anthropology. The study of Jean Charlot's work for the Carnegie Institution's excavations at Chichén Itzá has provided him with the opportunity to combine his two primary professional interests.

1 This article first appeared in Spanish as "El pintor convertido en arqueólogo: Jean Charlot en Chichén Itzá" In Milena Koprivitza and Blanca Garduño Pulido, ed., México in la obra de Jean Charlot (pp. 57-72). Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, México, 1994.

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All images and texts by Jean Charlot copyright the Jean Charlot Estate