Notebook, 1993-

CERAMICS -- Generations in Clay [Dittert] -- The Mimbres Art and Archaeology [Fewkes]

The Mimbres Painted Pottery [Brody]

Brody, J. J. Mimbres Painted Pottery. School of American Research, Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press [With support from the Weatherhead Foundation]. 1977, 1989.

Mimbres Painted Pottery [cont.]

POTTERY PAINTING: Form and Structure of Mimbres Black-on-White
Vessel Form. While pottery making was a major craft of the Mimbres people, they had relatively little interest in the tactile and plastic potentialities of clay. Their overwhelming aesthetic concern was with the two-dimensional surfaces rather than the three-dimensional forms of their vessels. Open bowls were by far the most common type of painted vessel . . . . Bowls are round bottomed and usually somewhat wider than twice their own height, so that they are not quite hemispherical. The most common bowl fragments are globular forms with flared rims, but whatever their shape, most bowls are about 10 inches in diameter and between 4 and 5 inches deep . . . . [p. 131]

The assumption that shape distortion usually resulted from uneven firing temperatures or occurred if vessels were fired before they had properly dried is supported by the rarity of warpage of small and of flared-rim bowls. The former have walls as thick as those of average size and were therefore considerably more stable. The collarlike rims of the flared-rim vessels gave these shapes great stability also, and neither form was susceptible to accidental warpage. Flaring rims are usually an inch or less wide and project from vessel walls at about right angles; their rim profiles are elaborate and suggest that some potters were taking tentative steps toward using the plasticity of the clay for decorative ends . . . . p. 133

Perceptually, the greatest differences in decoration between globular and hemispherical forms have to do with convexity and concavity. Proportions are similar and design problems hinged on the question of whether the inner or the outer side of a hemisphere was to be painted. Other forms, especially effigies, presented other kinds of visual problems.

Numerous plant and animal effigies were made, but some are known from only one or two examples and none are plentiful. Bird effigies are the [p. 133] most common and are usually variations of the standard jar shape, with mouth and neck shifted from the center to one end to form the head and neck of the bird . . . . Some are supported by two or more often three or four legs that have no resemblance to those of a bird.

Effigies of four-footed animals are generally similar. Most have four legs, but except for horned animals species identification is often problematical. Bowl-shaped effigies were also made, usually painted on interiors but sometimes on the outside as well . . . . p. 133-134

The Painting Tradition. The decorative possibilities open to any Mimbres painter, in theory, were infinite. In practice, the artists accepted--as all artists do--a set of arbitrary limitations that had an internal logic. An understanding of their decorative system must inevitably refer to these limitations, their logic, and their effects. [p. 134]

Among the systematic exclusions accepted by Mimbres artists was the use of texture and, with some exceptions, of more than two colors on any one surface. Paint was thus used mainly for its linear values or as a solid filler. The Mimbreños' figurative pictures generally avoided allusions to spatial depth, and this commitment to a two-dimensional imagery was consistent with their painting strategy. They chose to paint only in well-defined patterning areas on only one surface of a vessel. Their framed pictures in consequence could not become an integral part of any pot. Except for their figurative paintings, they were committed to geometrical regularity, and this led to an inevitable and rigorous rhythmic formality. Although paintings and their supporting surfaces were recognized as two separate things, the character of each shaped surface was considered when picture spaces were defined, and painted frames and motifs were made to conform to the peculiar shapes on which they were placed. Finally, the tensions between the shape of a vessel and its painted covering intensified all dynamic possibilities in any painted pattern.

At the heart of this tradition was the conception of a pot as a surface on which to put a painting. Relationships between the two were in organic and in a sense either could exist independent of the other. This concept was modified by a set of mechanistic features that had the effect of creating pseudo-organic relationship between pictures and their support surfaces. Among these features were the commitment to maintaining the picture plane by avoiding three-dimensional illusions, the adjustment of picture frames so that painted shapes were often made to conform to the shifting planes of globular or spherical vessels, the repetition of a few basic geometric elements in mathematically predictable sequences, and, above all , the treatment of paint and background as visual co-equals. Despite this mutual independence, in practice the tradition demanded close visual interrelationships between the shape of a vessel and the forms painted on it.

This system was not used exclusively by the Mimbres but rather was and is common to most Native American pottery traditions of the Southwest. The specific Mimbres tradition is defined by certain innovations and mechanical details rather than through any basic modifications of the regional system. Some of these details are unique, but most are not, being instead clusters of attributes any one of which might be shared with other regional subtraditions or co-traditions. The most important Mimbres innovation was in the figurative paintings, which are unique in their execution and organization. In these the Mimbres artists frequently abandoned the mathematical inevitability of geometric rhythms and sometimes implied a three-dimensional [p. 137] pictorial world. Even so, these pictures generally maintain two-dimensional surfaces, their organizational schemes are often geometric, and in other respects they differ from the nonfigurative pictures mostly by their subject matter.

The Mimbres variation of the southwest decorative tradition is mostly defined by choice of subject or motif, concentration on certain kinds of rhythm, pictorial structure, draftsmanship, coloration, and tensions. [p. 134-138]

Nonfigurative paintings were all organized according to one or another of a limited group of geometrical schemes, and their elements were also severely limited to sets of basic geometrical figures. The various schemes and figures could be combined and recombined in an infinite series, but none of these inventions would have the effect of modifying and underlying concepts. Though the conceptual rules were limiting, their logic provided the artists with a framework within which they had the freedom to manipulate, interpolate, interpret, and invent. Everything followed from the basic premise that paint was applied to the surface of the vessel as a sort of skin, hugging it and adjusting its two-dimensionality to the three-dimensional reality of the space enclosed by the vessel. [p. 138]

Pictorial composition was largely determined by vessel form, and the limitation in the number of basic vessel shapes and their simplicity gave positive support to the primacy of painting over all other decorative means. [p. 138]

All vessels have relatively large expanses of gently curving, smooth, hemispherical or globular surfaces. Systems of pictorial organization that were invented to cover one form could, with a minimum of adjustment, be made suitable for another, and concavity and convexity were merely two sides of the same hemisphere. Perceptual problems were another matter entirely. Bowl paintings on concave interior surfaces were normally perceived as entities, but only parts of exterior paintings on other vessel shapes could normally be seen at any one time. Paintings on jars, ollas, and similar forms therefore required alternative organizations if they were to be as effective as those on bowls. As it happened, paintings on all forms were usually organized in about the same manner, as though perception would be immediate and total. Thus the Mimbres concentration on bowl paintings was more than statistical; it was also a state of mind. [p. 138]

The patterning of geometric paintings on bowls usually clarified structural characteristics of the vessel form. Framing lines were placed immediately below the rim of a vessel and were usually drawn around its bottom also. Even though the potters seldom emphasized the architectural [p. 138] parts of the bowl--its rims, walls, and base--these were isolated and stressed by the painters. When no bottom frame was drawn, the bowl center was given importance by use of some alternative painting structure, usually lines that radiated from it to emphasize the symmetry and hemispherical nature of the form. The picture space was further subdivided, but the patterning systems tended to integrate all parts of a design into a single unit. For example, each segment of a quartered pattern might enclose a self-centered design, but the dominant image is of a single figure rather than four separate ones. Division of a vessel into quarters, with or without a reserved center, was the most common method of structuring bowl paintings, but segmentation into two, three, or five or more parts was also done. In most the divisions are radial and the dividing lines actually or by implication pass through the center of the vessel. [p. 138-139]

The reserved space in a bowl center could become its visual focal point and, when representational designs were placed in it, any sidewall patterns were reduced to function as more or less ornate frames. This reduction of the importance of the vessel walls also happened if geometric designs were isolated in a bowl center. But most often center spaces were either left blank or included in an all-over pattern. In the one case concentration was on the vessel walls; in the other, paint was applied to all parts of the surface. In rare examples wall patterns are static, with motifs [p. 139] confined to rectangular panels, but dynamic patterning was the usual rule, a tense by-product of the Mimbres response to the southwestern assumption that a painting on a pot was both a part of and apart from the vessel. [p. 139, 142]

The Mimbres organized pictorial space on a bowl so that it conformed to the architectural parts of the vessel. They then violated the resulting horizontal registers by crossing them with a series of radiating divisions. [p. 138]

Other tension-creating devices included the kinetic effects achieved by offsetting radiating lines, contrasting smooth curves against straight lines, use of ambiguous positive-negative forms, and the systematic repetition of sharply angular elements and motifs. [p. 138]

Their system required the painted skin of a pot to conform to the vessel shape but permitted secondary patterns to ignore the architectonic form-determinants, and therein lies its vitality. [p. 138]

Designs on shapes other than bowls either used bowl structural systems with little modification or depended on series of repeated, self-contained panels. Rarely were results as satisfying or dynamic as paintings on bowls. Bowl designs transferred to exterior surfaces ignore the perceptual problem and are most effective only when seen from above. From a more normal side perspective the dominating and dynamic form and rhythm, and the tensions that characterize Mimbres bowl design, are lost. Those exterior designs that depend on panel structure are static and tend to behave as series of self-contained, separate but related pictures. Again, their static nature is most obvious from a side view, in which the complete organizational structure may be surmised but not seen.

Painted effigies are even more restrained in patterning, with the commitment to representation taking precedence over all decorative intentions. [p. 142] Spatial organization was dictated by the physical character of the life-form. For example, a bird-human effigy has painted panels placed in wing, back, tail, and neck areas. These interrelate to the shape of the vessel and the conventions of bird representation, but not to each other as parts of one decorative picture. These panels were usually filled with arbitrary geometric figures but were organized as representational units, no matter how nonrepresentational their interior motifs. [p. 142, 145]

Basic Pictorial Structures. The most common and elementary of the Mimbres visual devices was line, and with line the artists created all painted decoration. It is commonplace to consider the lines as either curved or straight, but most were placed on curved surfaces that deny the possibility of a straight line. Nonetheless, the illusion and effect of ruler-straight lines was created and it is more convenient to accept the illusion than it is to deny it. Most Mimbres lines are continuous, even-sided, and narrow. The thick-thin variations that do occur seem always to be departures from an ideal, the result of careless brush handling or the simple technical inability of an individual artist to draw a straight line.

In a nonfigurative painting continuous lines generally move in only one of three directions--parallel to the pot rim and forming a complete circle, at right angles to the rim and bisecting the vessel, or at about a 45-degree angle to the rim, segmenting the vessel from rim to rim. Painting seems usually to have started with a line placed parallel to and just below the rim to encircle the vessel. This served as the upper frame of the design area. Other circles parallel to the first were often drawn to define subsidiary design zones or to elaborate on the upper frame. Additional long lines were then drawn at right or oblique angles to the first. These defined other major decorative zones, bisected or quartered the vessel, outlined a dominant central form, or otherwise provided the framework for a complex and dynamic structure that would cover the surface defined by the framing lines. Design zones established by the second group of lines might be further divided with short lines to form filler units made up of geometrical elements such as rhomboids, triangles, rectangles, or squares. In combination, these subunits formed readily identifiable motifs, and short filler lines were sometimes placed within [p. 145] each. Throughout, all lines were complete, either by being made continuous as in a circle, or by running from one crossing point to another.

Long lines that bisect a vessel from rim to rim form sweeping curves. Somewhat exaggerated and in combination with straight lines or other curved ones, these were the framework for distinctive and dynamic central motifs. Other curved lines include short arcs that combined with straight lines to form small design zones or large motifs. Curved lines were also used to make continuous and sometimes interlocked tight scrolls and elegant S-shaped motifs. Less common linear variations included zigzags and short lines, sometimes used as dashes but more often in combinations to form motifs.

Solid areas were always delineated before being filled, and heavy black paint was never anything but an alternative way of filling a defined space. In some cases narrow lines were made to expand until they functioned as a solid filler, and black areas are sometimes so dominant that the unpainted white slip left between two solids is all that remains to carry an image. These strikingly ambiguous positive-negative patterns are among the most active and effective of all Mimbres nonrepresentational paintings.

Basic design structures including the dominating shapes and rhythms were established by the first few lines drawn on any vessel. Details and elaborations might develop slowly and perhaps spontaneously, but at the outset the painter necessarily had a mental image of the intended picture. As it developed with motifs and elements placed within zoned areas, it was possible to change an image or modify the original intention by smothering the structure with an overlay of pattern. But the original lines could not be erased without destroying an entire pattern, and the end result was a logical if complex variant of a basic scheme established by the first few brushmarks.

Most of the paintings are monochromatic, and line functions as a visual substitute for color. The spectrum was narrow, ranging from white [or the absence of paint ] to solid black [or the total covering of slip]. A variety of hatchured grays could relieve the stark dark-light contrasts that otherwise prevailed. The tone and intensity of grays is a function of line width and closeness, with light and middle values predominant. Occasionally the hatching dominates, but most often it serves only to relieve sharp contrasts [p. 147] and to act as a bridge between the dark and the light parts of a picture. On the rare polychrome vessels a third color made of a thin red slip was used as a filler. This usually functioned as hatchure does, to establish an intermediate color.

Line quality was remarkably consistent throughout the entire Mimbres Phase and in all of the Mimbres region. As much as any other single factor it dramatizes the power of traditional training, for the only variation other than steadiness is in line thickness. Some were thinner than others, but any lines wider than about 1/16 inch were made by pairing narrow lines and filling the space between them. Brushes could not hold much paint, and long lines were made as series of connected dashes rather than in a single stroke. These betrayed the less skilled painters, whose lines were unsteady, varied in thickness, and made uncontrolled changes of direction. The importance of line is manifest, and every Mimbres painting was both opportunity and challenge to an artist who was expected to demonstrate linear skills. [pp. 145-148]

Motifs and Images. The elemental forms of Mimbres painting were even more limited in their number than the structural systems. The most common, excluding line, are triangles and circles. Diamonds, rhomboids, squares, crosses , and spirals can also be considered as elemental units, but the first three are made of paired triangles and the last two are line variants. A single kind of form element could be repeated to make a complex design; two were used most often, three sometimes, more than three rarely. Circles were used mainly to describe large design zones, especially central ones, and also to describe the shape of a subunit. Wedge-shaped triangles were a natural consequence of any quartered design structure and were also used to describe large design zones. Small-scale triangles are visually the most compelling of Mimbres elemental forms, the shape appearing as zone fillers, in motif combinations, as motifs, and as line embellishments.

Different elemental forms are generally found only as zone fillers or in motif-forming combinations. Motifs are of two general sorts, structural ones that serve as the dominant image on a vessel and nonstructural ones used as fillers or embellishments within design zones. The former class, because of the logic of the design system and nature of the shape they must dominate, tend [p. 149] to be organized with reference to the center of their vessel. They rotate around, expand from, or contract toward this center, which is often an imaginary rather than a manifest point in the picture space. The motifs thus tend to resemble stars, fans, flowers, and similar forms, but their specific image is less a matter of larger structure than of detail, especially the distribution of darks and lights. If, for instance, the basic structure is a quartered circle, the two lines that intersect to make the figure also create the image of four wedge-shaped triangles suspended point inwards from the rim border. Depending on subsidiary details, the focal motif made by those two lines could be a starlike or an hourglass figure, could rotate or be stable, could expand from the center or implode toward it. If one side of each of the wedge-shaped triangles was curved, a rotational fan would result. If the two upper corners of each were curved the resulting image would be petallike, suggesting leaves, a flower, or perhaps feathers. [p. 151 ] In every case, and despite clear differences of imagery, the basic quartered design structure is identical, and identification of the image with a natural form is problematical. Other central motif variants were made with equally simple means. Lines that converged toward a bowl center could be incomplete, dividing the bowl by implication or suggestion even when the center was left blank and the dividing lines were reduced to mere stubs. Structural motifs could be made more or less complex by changing the number of their cross divisions and thereby changing their geometric rhythms. Always, activity and ambiguity, motion and impact were determined by linear direction and line quality, by specifics of geometric distribution, and by use of light and dark patterning.

A pair of triangles joined at their tips and each with one side curved in the same direction forms an S-shaped figure. This was among the more popular of Mimbres motifs and in its many variations was used as an active major or minor image. As a major motif it usually extends from rim to rim, sometimes repeated to form a fanlike rotating figure. As a minor motif it was often used as a fat, negative filler confined within a design zone. Formed by pairs of S-shaped lines, the images were carried by the white spaces between them, and the motif provided a rich source of ambiguous dark-light, positive-negative variations. When several were placed in a line parallel to a bowl rim and within a design zone, each interlocked with those on either side of it to form a continuous chain, and the interlocking curves were sometimes connected or extended to form spirals.

Zone filling motifs were often derived from combinations of two or more triangles and often placed on line. Depending on the kind of triangle and the direction of the line, many different images, including negative ones, could be [p. 153] made. A series of small triangles on a line created a fringed line; two series, one on either side of a line, became a series of diamonds or rhomboids. If offset and kept small they created the effect of a zigzag line. Triangles on two lines facing each other made series of negative diamonds, rhomboids, or a stepped white line in the space left blank between them. Equilateral triangles placed on a diagonal line made a stepped figure. A pair of these in opposition left a white stepped line between them. When curvilinear forms are added to the triangle-based motifs and variations in scale, color, and rhythm are taken into account, the possible combinations appear to be endless.

Variations in tonal value created the equivalents of color effects, and [p. 154] these colors were massed rather than spread evenly. The effect of color massing was to develop active, contrasting, and sometimes ambiguous dark-light patterns. Half or more of a picture space was often covered by paint, but activity and contrasts of shape as well as color kept them from being somber, and where hatchure was used the gray tones often dominate. Hatchuring was as close as the Mimbres artists ever came to painting apparent textures. At times their fascination with the mechanics of drawing fine lines led to creation of delicate traceries that could cover an entire vessel, but more usually hatchure was confined to filler areas within motifs.

Large motifs and those with large interior spaces were often subdivided and sometimes had reserved spaces within them in which other motifs could be placed. These spaces were usually well defined in shape and by color contrast, and their motifs were generally basic signs such as crosses or circles.

The Mimbres geometric painting system often depended on the use of active, well-defined, overall motifs that can be read as either positive or negative images. Alternatively it called for subdividing spaces into ever-smaller units that could be visually reintegrated into a single , dominating, [p. 155] overall pattern. Ambiguity, motion, and tension were built into the system and were reinforced by specific methodologies. Thus color distribution made it possible to read designs as both black patterns on white grounds and white patterns on black. Direction of movement was also ambiguous, leaving questions as to whether a particular image expands or contracts. The end results are often complex, but the means were always so simple that full effectiveness made skillful brushwork an absolute requirement. Indifferent draftsmanship voided visual success, no matter how fertile the imagination, while superb draftsmen who followed the rules could hardly go wrong.

The particular characteristics of Mimbres geometrical painting grew out of fascination for the visual potentials of ambiguity and movement that were latent in the major southwestern decorative tradition. Mimbres artists developed these potentials, and the emphatic value they placed on line control and the uses of interlocking forms and visual space are the hallmarks of their tradition.

The limitations and constraints of that tradition were a guarantee of consistency. The superficial visual conservativism that appears to be so alien to the creative process was instead an essential protective device that made pictorial invention possible. Rather than inhibiting the part-time artists, tradition provided them with a framework on which each could build with confidence to the full limit of individual creative ability. [p. 148-156]


[Brody, J. J. Mimbres Painted Pottery. School of American Research, Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press [With support from the Weatherhead Foundation]. 1977, 1989.]



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