Power plays

By GREG COOK  |  May 21, 2010

“Fiery Pool” arrives in part as a rebuttal to the 1986 exhibit “The Blood of Kings” at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, a show then billed as a “revolutionary” study based on new understandings of Maya hieroglyphs. These were believed to reveal that “blood was the mortar of ancient Maya ritual and life,” with blood being shed in rituals and bloodlines determining who would be king. Finamore and Houston believe that line of thinking “somewhat overstated” the Maya’s focus on land and dynastic succession. Here, instead, we’re presented with a parade of water-themed works: a limestone sculpture of a world turtle; a bowl decorated with a duck head (symbolizing wind and breath); a frog (symbolizing rain and renewal) made from a shell; a vase depicting the Maize God’s journey by canoe from death to rebirth; a king (the actual ruler Torch-Sky-Turtle) sitting on a water-lily throne in an underwater cave. A nine-foot-long basalt sculpture of a world crocodile (missing its snout and tail), circa 300 BC–100 AD, was found in a basin-like plaza in Guatemala that may have flooded during rains, giving the impression that the beast was swimming.

MAKING CONTACT The president-elect and his wife try to look stately for Richard Avedon’s camera.
A case displays stingray spines — as menacing as serrated knives — used in ritual bloodletting. Nearby stands a limestone panel from 723 AD, among the most famous of Maya works, and reproduced frequently in history books. It was commissioned by and depicts Ix K’abal Xook, the chief wife of a king, conjuring Chahk by piercing her flesh with stingray spines, bleeding onto bark papers, then burning the papers as an offering. A double-headed serpent slithers like smoke from the fire, and out of its mouth appears Chahk, who gazes down at her and points a spear.

“The Maya thought about the sea ceaselessly,” says Houston, but he adds that “very few of the artists who created the works in the show ever saw the Caribbean, ever saw the Gulf of Mexico, ever saw the Pacific. What we see here is their conjecture, their imagining.”

“Fiery Pool” is an example of how the Peabody Essex has been cleverly reimagining its traditional focus on New England, the area’s maritime history, its Native American peoples, and the Eastern and African cultures that seafaring New Englanders touched. The concurrent exhibit “The Kennedys | Portrait of a Family: Photographs by Richard Avedon” — organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History — presents New England history via the Massachusetts political clan. Side by side, the exhibits become studies of political power.

Avedon arrived at the Kennedy home in Palm Beach, Florida, on January 3, 1961, with two assistants, several cameras (he favored a two-and-a-quarter-inch-negative Rolleiflex), lights, and a roll of white background paper that they unspooled in the living room. The shoot would be the only formal photos taken of the family between the election and JFK’s swearing-in.

Avedon (1923–2004) made his name in the 1940s as a brilliant fashion photographer for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, shooting smartly dressed models seemingly on the fly in romantic Paris. In the 1950s, as he added celebrity portraiture, he began photographing his subjects in front of white backdrops, to isolate them from any distracting background.

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