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  • The Maya of Modernism: Art, Architecture, and Film by Jesse Lerner
  • Thomas Germano
Jesse Lerner. The Maya of Modernism: Art, Architecture, and Film. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011. 214 pp. ISBN: 978-0826349811. $45.00.

The Maya of Modernism: Art, Architecture, and Film takes the reader on a whirlwind tour encompassing many obscure, lesser-known modernist and postmodernist responses to the art of the ancient Maya. Examples of earth art, architecture, performance, conceptual art, illustration, installation, film, theater, and photography are finely woven into the text to make an interesting yet esoteric view of the many creative responses to the ancient Maya since their rediscovery in the early nineteenth century. The classic-era ancient Maya culture had long passed and their great cities had been abandoned by the time the Spanish conquerors arrived in the sixteenth century. Revisited in the age of modernism, the ancient Maya drew the attention of a vast assortment of artists working in a variety of media over the past two centuries, resulting in diverse outcomes.

The Maya of Modernism is by no means intended for the neophyte of Maya studies or for anyone unacquainted with modern or postmodern theory; the book may require a cultural background primer. Lerner makes reference to many works of art that are far from mainstream or popular culture. Cited works include the interesting but obscure Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatán (1969), by the earthworks artist Robert Smithson; The Catherwood Project (1985), by Leandro Katz; and Photogravity (2000), Gabriel Orozco’s photographic installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Orozco mixed black-and-white photographs of Mesoamerican art reproductions, [End Page 189] cut to shape and exhibited alongside photographs of his own ready-mades. Orozco’s installation creates an unexpected dialogue between the old and the new incorporating a Duchampian and Dada element.

Although Walt Disney and Ridley Scott are two of the better-known filmmakers Lerner mentions, the reader will not find any cinematic reference to Mel Gibson’s very well known Apocalypto, released in 2006. Instead, Lerner introduces the reader to Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s epic, never-completed failure Mexican Fantasy. Eisenstein’s costs ran over budget, and he failed to meet deadlines; finally, Upton Sinclair halted the Depression-era Russian-Hollywood collaborative production. While short segments of Mexican Fantasy were recycled for commercials and are now available as YouTube clips, Eisenstein’s overly ambitious film attempt treats us to the frustrated imaginings of a Soviet genius of cinema, whose methods were incompatible with Hollywood timetables.

Lerner points out that Eisenstein’s greatest talents lay in the editing room, a point the production never reached. Cinema audiences in the 1930s would more likely be familiar with mainstream populist productions such as Tarzan and the Green Goddess (1938). While no mention of the latter is found in The Maya of Modernism, we might safely assume that the film lacked Eisenstein’s artistic ambitions. Tarzan’s naive audiences may not have noticed that the exotic jungle of Guatemala does not contain African safari animals such as giraffes, lions, and rhinoceroses.

Lerner is more sympathetic to Benito Alazraki’s Raices of 1953, which was a Cannes Film Festival Critic’s Grand Prize winner in 1955. Raices (Roots) is a four-episode historical drama about various aspects of indigenous Mexican life. The four parts are “Las vacas,” “Nuestra Señora,” “El tuerto,” and “La potranca.” In “El tuerto,” a cross-eyed boy is teased by his playmates. His religious mother asks God to correct the boy’s eyes, which results in a tragic outcome. Director Benito Alazraki adapted the screenplay from the works of Francisco Roja González. A shortened version was released in the United States in 1958.

The Maya of Modernism gives a succinct introduction to the West’s first encounters with the mundo maya. It tells of the nineteenth-century Western explorers who were the first to visit, document, illustrate, and collect relics from important Maya sites. The time Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stevens spent in Copán, Palenque, and the Yucatán, and later the visits of Claude Désiré Charney and Alfred Percival Maudslay, are mentioned for their seminal...


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