Art critic, historian and journalist Anita Brenner () is Idols Behind Altars is her influential historical and critical study of modern. Title, Idols Behind Altars. Author, Anita Brenner. Edition, illustrated, reprint. Publisher, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, ISBN, X, User Review – Flag as inappropriate. Hardcover. No DJ. Possible first edition. Part of DJ glued to inside cover. Edges of spine are a little tattered.

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Search the history of over billion web pages on the Internet. However their valuable collaboration would have been less satisfactorily illustrated except for the sympathy and support of the former rector of the National University of Mexico, Dr.

Alfonso Pruneda, who commissioned for the University an investigation of Mexican art, placing the author in charge. The two photographers who shared this commission, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, are too well known and respected as masters of their craft to expect in Idols Behind Altars any acknowledgment less than deeply grateful, and artists about whom much of this book is written have been kind enough to sponsor it with interest and assistance. An old prophecy current in Mexico announces that “When the chief temple of the Aztecs shall appear in the principal plaza of the city of Tenochtitlan, bearing upon it the sun, then shall the ancient people possess their ancient rights.

It is a model of the chief temple of the Aztecs, with a stone symbolic of the sun carved on its surface.

This is a curious piece of lore forbut Mexico is a peculiar place. It is a fact that begins with the very contour of the land, torn into sudden transition, from the most lux- uriant tropics to the grey, arid, rock-built heights around volcanoes. Mexico is made up of three planes: They cut into and across each other so that you may stand on the top of a canyon and see snow on the mountain above you, while thousands of feet just under you, coffee and bananas grow.

The dramatic and untimed juxtapositions of climates and landscapes are like the days, which everywhere go suddenly and without twi- light, from white light into the night. And they are like the storms, short, powerful, saturating. Crops grow richly, dis- appear quickly. The land seems unfinished, and at the same time forever fixed. Most of the mountains are volcanoes, many of them are alive and occasionally stir in their sleep. Therefore they dominate in the making of that curious, insistent uncertainty that is the essence of Mexican life, bound up with the just as insistent sense of changelessness.

The flat-topped volcanic pyramid is re- peated over and over in different scale and material. In the temples and observatories of pre-Hispanic structure; in squar- ish colonial missions; in village houses, thatched with palms where palms grow, and where stretches of lava girdle the fields, walled with the same sombre rock.

The Indian, squatted, wrapped conically in his sarape, and his wife, swathed in her rebozo, justify by their own architecture the ancient custom of giving personal names to volcanoes. Mountains, plants — ancient breeds, century plants, cacti, maize and calabashes — and the people, all have a tense, ani- mal vitality. The maguey grows spikes like claws on its grey- green fibrous muscles; the maize is toothed; fruits and flesh are of the same firm blood-filled texture; and the people state facts and face them without sentimental or ethical apologia.

Who stays long enough cannot escape the demands of this integrity. He may hate it, and feels impotent to scratch upon it; or he loves it with passion. He is in both cases bound to it. Women particularly find themselves tormented, and people who cannot abandon the notions brought with them from elsewhere.

With an intellectual axe to grind, this land which takes such liberties with time and space, which jazzes the social scale, which shifts into many faces, and is nevertheless a unit, be- comes madness. He goes like the land to extremes, contracts a permanent faith like the Indian’s, or a permanent doubt like the mestizo’s; drinks himself to disease like most foreigners, or writes poetry, sings, paints pictures, like most natives.

For the dust of Mexico on a human heart corrodes, precipitates. But with the dust of Mexico upon it, that heart can find no rest in any other land. Without the need for translation or a story sequence, Mexico resolves itself harmoniously and powerfully as a great sym- phony or a great mural painting, consistent with itself, not as a nation in progress, but as a picture, with certain dominant themes, certain endlessly repeated forms and values in con- stantly different relationships, and always in the present, like the Aztec history-scrolls that were also calendars and books of creed.


They make us who are miserable to see the light among the flowers and songs of the fertile fields, they cause us to see those things. They dwell in the place of spring, here within the broad fields, and only for our sakes does the turquoise water fall in broken drops on the surface of the lake. Where it gleams forth in fourfold rays, where the fragrant yellow flowers bud, there live the Mexicans, the youths.

Life shifting from one form to another, and all still the same; movement defined by stops; light end- lessly becoming darkness, plants and people of necessity dying, at a definite fixed point, to be reborn. Hence the constant considering of death, and hence the Mexican messiah. The sun, the mountains, the gods, the heroes of necessity martyrshealers and rebels — this is the stuff of which the messiah is made. His form is multiple.

There may be many of him at once. Always he is the same messiah, projection of divinity. Always he must die, always return. He is fundamentally an abstract principle, the func- tion of which is to kindle, maintain, justify, embody and give life.

Texcatlipoca the perennially youthful Smoking Mirror, or Fiery Rock, was a mountain, the night wind, a jaguar, and was present, although essentially invisible, in the forms of priests and of people bearing his name or wearing garments like his. He was dramatically synthesized yearly in the living body of the most beautiful male captive, who was honored for the seasons’ cycle and worshipped as the god. At the end of the year he died, to nourish the sun, which could thereby live and make the next year’s crops spring up again.

Quetzalcoatl the Plumed Serpent, was water, the south wind, reptile, bird, plants, doctor, teacher, astronomer, priest, king, and ordinary wise person. As king he taught the people agriculture and how to measure time and the stars. Then he sailed away in a white-winged boat, promising to return. As wind and ser- pent, priest and ordinary wise person, he was considered to be still present. The Tepozton of Tepoztlan, a mountain village near the capital, is, as his name signifies, lord of the mountain on which his temple stands.

He is also the ancient Ometochtli who helped to discover the fertile maguey with its bowl of intoxi- cant milk. He is each of the kings who ruled the village. He is the boy who today takes care of his ruined house.

He is the favorite son of this Lady, though when she first arrived he angrily blasted the crops as the wind, and as a deadly white worm at the roots of the maize. He appeared on the shoulder of his mountain as a great serpent and as lightning, as a jaguar with tremen- dous jaws and a horrible roar, as a radiant being with waving head-dress, riding the storm. The Tepozton “usually walks about the fields and attends to the crops and other matters of the people’s welfare.

Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots

They are fulfilled, and it rains. During the revolution he helped the peasant rebels against the Federal soldiers. The Tepozton, like the Teutli of Milpa Alta, like the Lord of Chalma, like the long-haired mourning Malintzin, “is a powerful brennwr but what he has of bad he has of good, too. But some day they will awake, and shake, and pour forth lava and boil- ing water, a great and barbarous breath.

Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots

Then the people will no longer carry burdens on their backs. Therefore all the prophecies which promise restoration are complemented by announcements of catastrophe.

The cycles were not arranged in sequence. Each was a completely new beginning, re- peating the days and events of the past, with the same names and the same coincident events. Thus the behnid were as calendrical as the seasons.


The martyr-messiah was dated. The return of Quetzalcoatl was set for the end of a cycle that proved to be the last of the Aztec Empire. He was heralded by comets, earthquakes, sinister messengers.

Moc- tezuma was warned that the end of his reign was near, and with it his own death. Then Cortez materialized the white and bearded — maize-like but un-Aztec — human form of the radiant Serpent.

In the eighteenth century just before the War of Independence, two cultured Spanish gentlemen entered un- announced the hut of an Indian in a garden suburb of Mexico City, and surprised “a very old man squatting on his mat, with a pair of spectacles on brennrr nose, studying a hieroglyph chart or picture-map.

There is a good deal of faith in these prophecies. Many of them come true, and in schedule.

Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots by Anita Brenner

They circulate among the otherwise inarticulate, by word of mouth, in ballads, hymns, penny broadsides, by gesture almost. One hardly knows how, but the feeling is there. Sooner or later the idolx and the men produce corroboration. In the years when the revolution of was brewing, and just before the pot boiled over, although the dictator did not know it, the people spoke among themselves of what was soon to come.

I remember being held up above a mob to watch the great glare of a comet in the sky, and the old woman who held me said: But that same day an earthquake in ania city split a big building in half. It was said, and Madero knew it, that he was soon to die. Out in the mountains of Morelos, Zapata, with his brutal, passionate peasant troop, was clamoring for the ancient lands. They died for it, as they both knew they would. The Miraculous Fidencio, insists a penny pamphlet as anonymous as a ballad, “Is not like the numberless witch- doctors, bone-setters, hypnotists and other such individuals who now and again rise up in Mexico, particularly in the fields.

The chronicles of the eighteenth century speak of Tzantzen, a mountain Indian from Zacatecas, extraordinarily learned in the curative powers of herbs and plants. Towards the end of the War of Independence there arose the somewhat unreal figure of Sor Encarnacion, a nun escaped from one of the convents to become the aid and comfort of the Mexican guerrilla men.

It idolss said that he who drank of the fountain which had sprung miraculously from her touch was cured of all his ills, and his wounds turned to scars In these last few years countless cure-people have arisen. Rutila, the little old woman of the Blue Water, in Guadalajara, who offered to resuscitate the governor. Don Erasmo Mata, that facetious Don Erasmo who with equal affability foretold the end of the world and cured the sick by means of the magic feathers of his prophet game-cock.

But Fidencio stands apart, a pure, serene, and humble figure, a generous Child who makes paralytics walk while he sings to them iodls ballads and chants, and gives out among the poor the gold and gifts of those in power. The nation must hasten to him to be healed, for he could give it only two years. A city sprang up in the desert around him, permanently inhabited by changing hundreds of beggars for sight, for speech, for move- ment, for life.

It was called the Place of Pain. Others said that this power came from the songs he sang. His abita was a lyric about and to a Blue Lily of the Mountain. It is a song of love and can, one hears, make death easier, and quiet any pain. Most often it was said that Fidencio’s power came from the Place of Pain itself. The tree under which he wept and prayed to be given the boon of healing became a shrine and an altar. Candles burned around it and supplicants knelt on its roots.

But Fidencio would not have these explanations.