With the transition of Olmec power from San Lorenzo to La Venta at the beginning of the Middle Formative period, small-scale stone sculpture replaced ceramic vessels as the primary mode of dissemination for Olmec mythology and style. Many such small-scale works, including this exceptionally fine example, maintain the sense of monumentality of the famous large-scale works of Olmec stone carving. Although hand-sized, the stable geometry of this figure’s kneeling pose, with hands resting at the knees, imbues the work with a sense of stability, compactness, and weight. At the same time, the sculptor was keenly sensitive to the substance of the human body; the viewer senses the softness of muscle and fat, as well as the underlying skeletal structure within.
This figure’s powerful, composed demeanor suggests it depicts an Olmec lord. The carver effectively conveyed a strong sense of individuality to the face, while the slightly sagging chest and paunch indicate maturity. The figure’s scalp has been split, with flaps of hair hanging at the back of the head. The scalp is inscribed with the image of a molting toad (not the diamond shape on its back where the skin has split). Although some speculate that the figure is transforming into an animal — a process purportedly induced by consumption of hallucinogenic toad secretions — it is also plausible that the sculpture associates dynastic continuity with natural cycles of renewal; just as a toad sheds its "dead" self to reveal new life, so, too, royal inheritance will emerge from ancestors as descendants.
Although this figure is hand sized, its kneeling pose, with hands resting at the knees, imbues it with a monumental sense of stability, compactness, and weight. At the same time, the sculptor was keenly sensitive to the substance of the human body; the viewer perceives the softness of muscle and fat as well as the skeletal structure within. The figure's scalp has been split, and flaps of hair hang at the back of the head. His scalp is inscribed with the image of a molting toad (note the diamond shape on its back, where the skin has split). This toad motif might associate dynastic continuity with natural cycles of renewal: just as a toad sheds its "dead" self to reveal new life, royal inheritance emerges with every generation of descendants from royal ancestors.
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An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)
The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership (December 16, 1995 - June 9, 1996)