The Olmec art style was the major prestige style of Ancient Mesoamerica between c. 1,500 BCE and 400 BCE, or much of the Mesoamerican Formative (Preclassic) period (or c. 1500–400 BCE calibrated). Scholars have successfully defined the stylistic elements of Olmec art, the most important of which is the tendency to exhibit a monumentality of form in objects of all sizes, including small portable objects. This monumentality is accomplished largely through a focus on essential forms and smooth surfaces. Olmec artists were interested mainly in the general human form and certain supernatural creatures. Humans and supernaturals were represented in assured and highly conventionalized forms, with a great interest in general naturalism but little interest in the small detail. What details there are tend to define specific supernatural traits, specific elements of elite costume, and at times gender. There is little interest in a setting or background; the surrounding urban space seems to have provided the context understood by the audience, at least in the case of monumental art. Olmec art style was not defined until the mid-20th century. In addition to an art style, the term “Olmec” is often used to define a civilization. This has led to some confusion surrounding the term, as noted by numerous scholars. In many sources, Olmec is shorthand for the civilization that arose in the lowlands of southern Veracruz and Tabasco during the Formative period. These sites, the first urban capitals in Ancient Mesoamerica, produced a rich corpus of monumental and portable art that serves as the basis for the definition of the art style. The art style is not limited to this “heartland” area, however, and its appearance elsewhere has sparked vigorous debate on the nature of the heartland Olmec relation with other Mesoamerican peoples.
An enormous number of works treat Olmec art, but few of these focus solely on the art. Instead, most overviews conflate the art style and the iconography found in the urban capitals to say something about the rise of civilization in the Ancient Americas. While Olmec art found in the early urban capitals may be used as evidence for theories of the advent of complex civilization, a significant amount of Olmec art seems to have been found outside these cities, and it is doubtful that provincial objects should be used as evidence for the rise of urbanity without significant corollary relations (see San Lorenzo Fine Ceramics and Mesoamerica for a key case where these matters are tested). Caso 1942 first attempts a synthesis of the known corpus of art objects, followed by Covarrubias 1946 and Covarrubias 1957. Milbrath 1979 is unusual in its exclusive focus on formal traits. A key work for Olmec style as a discrete object of study is Coe 1965, which synthesizes information from archaeology and art history in what is still an important statement. De la Fuente 1994, de la Fuente 1996, and de la Fuente 2008 explore basic themes and diagnostic characteristics. Pye 2012 follows on these publications with a succinct update of basic themes and characteristics. Clewlow 1967 is a detailed look at one of the most important and striking formats for Olmec art. Grove 2010 is a concise introduction to art outside the heartland.
Caso, Alfonso. “Definición y extensión del complejo ‘Olmeca.’” In Mayas y Olmecas: Segunda reunión de Mesa Redonda sobre Promblemas Antropológicos de México y Centro América. 43–46. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico: Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología, 1942.
Fundamental early definition of Olmec style.
Clewlow, C. William, ed. Colossal Heads of the Olmec Culture. Contributions, No. 4. Berkeley: University of California, Archaeological Research Facility, 1967.
Detailed study of the twelve Colossal Heads then known.
Coe, Michael D. “The Olmec Style and Its Distributions.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians. Edited by Gordon R. Willey, 739–775. Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica 3. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965.
A succinct historiography of the study of Olmec art to 1960 combined with an important early summary statement on the general nature of Olmec style and its place in Mesoamerican prehistory.
Covarrubias, Miguel. Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. New York: Knopf, 1946.
Author’s first attempt at a synthetic statement on Olmec art. Focuses on what he views as a “were-jaguar” as the chief deity in the Olmec pantheon.
Covarrubias, Miguel. Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. New York: Knopf, 1957.
Opulently illustrated section on Olmec art with a hypothesis on the meaning of the ubiquitous supernatural as a “were-jaguar” rain deity. His tendency to see a cultural evolution out of Olmec civilization to later Mesoamerican peoples is the genesis of the “mother culture” hypothesis.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. Escultura monumental Olmeca: Catálogo. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de México, 1973.
Exhaustive catalogue of Olmec sculpture known to that time.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. “Arte monumental Olmeca.” In Los Olmecas en Mesoamérica. Edited by John E. Clark and Rafael Doniz, 203–221. Mexico City: Citibank, 1994.
Synthesizes over twenty years of work on the characteristics of Olmec style.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. “Homocentrism in Olmec Monumental Art.” In Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Edited by Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente, 41–51. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1996.
Defines several themes in Olmec monumental sculpture: Supernaturals, Single Human Figures, Twins, and Colossal Heads.
de la Fuente, Beatríz. “Puede un estilo definir una cultura?” In Olmeca: Balance y perspectivas: Memoria de la Primera Mesa Redonda. Edited by María Teresa Uriarte and Rebecca B. González Lauck, 25–38. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2008.
Treats the relationship of Olmec art style and Olmec culture.
Grove, David C. “Olmec-Style Art outside Olman.” In Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. Edited by Kathleen Berrin and Virginia Fields, 68–75. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Useful brief essay on the appearance of Olmec style outside the heartland of southern Veracruz and Tabasco.
Milbrath, Susan. A Study of Olmec Sculptural Chronology. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 23. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection, 1979.
Attempts a seriation of the monumental art through largely formal criteria.
Pye, Mary E. “Themes in the Art of the Preclassic Period.” In The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology. Edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher A. Pool, 795–806. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Broad overview of Formative-period art that focuses on the Olmec and synthesizes many of the important themes in recent scholarship.
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