The ruins of modernity: The Maya in the modernist imagination, 1839--2003

Jesse Lerner
Cultural Studies, The Claremont Graduate University
July, 2006


This study looks at the meanings of the ancient Maya of southern Mexico in the modernist imagination. It reveals that the Maya past has proven to be a boundless source of inspiration, ideas and iconography for artists, architects, filmmakers, photographers and other producers of visual culture in Mexico, the United States, Europe and beyond. "While the imperial metropolis imagines itself as determining the periphery," Mary Louise Pratt writes, "it habitually blinds itself to the ways in which the periphery determines the metropolis." The phenomenon I am calling Maya modernism takes place within the framework Pratt describes, a back and forth between the periphery of the periphery, Chich Itz the Yucatan and more generally the Maya region in Southeastern Mexico, the center of the periphery, Mexico City, and the metropolitan centers of the United States and Europe. The specifics of this history complicate a simpler notion that one set of ideas, those of the modernism, is first developed within the metropolis and then exported elsewhere, while another set of objects, images and artifacts of the Maya and the material basis or raw materials for explanations of what they might mean travels in the other direction. Instead we see a complex back and forth involving itinerant objects and artists, migrants and pilgrims, interchanges and influences. This history exists within the larger narrative of modernist primitivism, but differs in significant and intriguing ways from the more familiar narratives of how Oceanic or West African objects, brought back to Europe as colonial loot, later sparked the imagination of the modernist vanguards of the early twentieth century, vanguards which existed without the knowledge of those who provided such provocative inspiration. In contrast, what I am calling Maya modernism, represented here by artists as diverse as Robert Smithson, Sergei Eisenstein, Albert Lewin, Waldemaro Concha Vargas and Robert Stacy-Judd, is significantly the product of a hemispheric---or at times even global---dialogue, an ongoing pan-American modernism characterized by a continuing series of reinterpretations, collaborations and exchanges.