Tlaxcala and other traitors

Fabled myth of the return of Quetzalcoatl or not, Cortes and his band of followers had some major cojones in taking on one of the most vicious and violently expansionist empires of the New World with a scant few men and no chance of backup.  In  Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler – a special exhibition at the British Museum, there’s an attempt to portray and humanise Montezuma, the last real ruler of Aztecs.    (Why Moctezuma?  Well, scholars can’t agree on the original Mexica/Aztex spelling and pronunciation so they’ve decided to veer from the one we all know to create maximum confusion and sense of ignorance in the regular museum going public)

My dad and I went to see this yesterday.  Pretty good.  Excellent curation of Mexican and Spanish (and British) holdings from the period of Montezuma’s brief reign.  But I didn’t really feel I got to know much more about Montezuma the man.  Why did he capitulate so easily?  Was he some kind of fragile freak (according to Wikipedia some of the rules surrounding his sacred person – no one could see him eat, no touching, etc) were at the inception of Montezuma himself and not a feature of royal Aztec personhood.   Did he really believe that Cortes was ordained to bring an end to the rule of the Aztecs (modern historians say no?)

Whatever, you have to hand it to Cortes – even if he did get help from the State of Tlaxcala – an independent island in a sea of Aztec client states.  The Tlaxcaltecans get a bad rap sometimes for helping the Spanish, but since they were being preyed upon by the Aztecs for sacrificial victims and could see the end of their state down the line, you can’t blame them too much for taking a punt on the Spanish.  Not sure it helped them out much in the end, though.

The Royal Academy did a more generalized exhibit on the Aztecs a few years ago which I remember as larger and more comprehensive but certainly not focused on an individual. (It was so good I bought the exhibit catalogue)   Interestingly, the a series of nearly contemporaneous Spanish oil on wood paintings inlaid with shell and mother of pearl depicting the end of the empire were perhaps the most striking thing for me.   It was in a style that I’d never seen before.

I was asked for a report on this exhbit.   If you went to the Royal Academy exhibit a few years ago…don’t bother. (Tickets are fairly scarce anyway)  But if you haven’t seen a big blockbuster Aztecs exhibit, I’d say this was well worth visiting.


Of recent years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed at the British museum is going upstairs to see the etchings.   They have a space for temporary exhibits of prints and drawings, often associated with (though not always) the major exhibition.   This time it was Revolution on Paper – Mexican print works from the radical set.  This includes some of the famous Mexican muralists and a lot of other great works.   I really like this period of Mexican art and so I really enjoyed this one….except for one thing.

Many of these artists were communists.  Fine.  The content of their print work was avowedly Marxist, sometimes revolutionary.  OK.

The laughter of the people - away with your nonsense, José Chávez Morado, 1939, lithograph © DACS 2009

But I wasn’t quite as happy with some of the commentary.  There was a fabulous poster print of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – condemning the US prosecution and execution of the pair for treason and claiming they were victimised because they “loved and believed in peace.”  Well, actually – it’s because they passed secrets to the Ruskies.  The exhibition notes implied that they were caught up in a McCarthy witchhunt.   But no mention of their guilt (corroborated from Soviet sources) or that they were in fact genuine communists.    Though fair enough questions still remain about the depth of Ethel’s guilt or why this pair were executed for their crimes when others who’d passed more harmful secrets received far lighter sentences.

And in another poster a greedy company owner was eating coinage which the commentary said was foreign money – American dollars – because of foreign investors skimming away profits from Mexico.  Although, if you actually looked at the money – it was clearly Mexican pesos.

Shame British museum for introducing your own (flawed) political commentary instead of letting the art speak for itself.


OK, no traitor link on this one…as far as we know.  But the British museum is currently exhibiting about a dozen pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard – and amazing collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and metal working  This was discovered only in July of this year and after going on a brief display at the Birmingham Art Museum (which I wasn’t able to catch, but really wanted to) it’s been removed from display and I guess is being studied now and offered up to various museums after its valuation.

The few pieces that I saw were indeed pretty cool – fine gold work (a bit smushed by time and the weight of the soil) and garnet inlay.   But I was disappointed to see that they were dirty.  Still covered from the soil they were buried in for so many centuries.

I couldn’t help remarking to my dad that it was still dirty.

“What do you expect, they only found it in July!” exclaimed a British patron. “You are just incredibly lucky to see it.  What do you expect?”

1. Not to be personally accosted at museums

2. 10 seconds under the tap wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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