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'Peru' unearths treasures
'Peru: Indigenous and Viceregal' on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, speaks to the intrigue of Peru.

Date published: 3/3/2005


This National Geographic Museum exhibit should come with a warning. Viewing it might lead to an immediate urge to fly to Peru to see the wondrous land where all this art was created.

National Geographic has been fueling a fascination with Peru since its first archaeology grant to Hiram Bingham in 1912 for the exploration of Machu Picchu, a city located high in the Andes Mountains.

Thus began years of National Geographic showcasing the mysteries of this region in its magazine and documentaries.

Now, the exciting "Peru: Indigenous and Viceregal" exhibit provides an opportunity to view 150 valuable artifacts, including millennia-old pottery vessels, intricate sculptures, ornate furniture, exquisite gold and silver pieces, and striking religious paintings.

While the Incan Empire and its vast and powerful architecture have most captivated the imaginations of Americans, the cultures and arts of this diverse area with three distinct geographical regions (a desert coastal area, the Amazon jungle and the Andes mountains) are much broader.

Peruvian art is a rich treasure that covers five basic periods, spanning 3,000 years.

This exhibit, however, is not just another collection of beautiful objects meant to amaze and astound. What stands out most here is a striking synchronicity.

Even with the contrasts that occur in vastly different geographical areas and cultural ages, there is a blending of artistic minds that sets this collection off as a distinct product of an area that is clearly Peru.

One such example of the merging of indigenous and Spanish cultures is an 18th-century oil of the Christ child with Incan imperial robes and mascaypacha. The work, as admirable as any in the cathedrals of Europe, blends themes, depicting the savior of the world in the form of a pagan ruler.

Peruvian pottery has long been considered important because of the social history the works reveal. A llama pot that is more than 2,500 years old still retains the charm that might be found in a more contemporary souvenir.

A second century B.C. copper funeral mask and a perfectly preserved burial mantle of hair and cotton are more ancient remains of funeral objects.

Graves also yielded necklaces and other metalwork personal adornments that support the stories of this region's wealth and the realities of the superior craftsmanship of its metalsmiths. One such piece, a ceremonial shirt from around A.D. 1000, is fascinating for the ways in which its details resemble those of the fabrics that have survived.

An exhibit highlight is the 18th-century statue Archer of Death. Created for a Holy Week float, the 7-foot skeleton is poised with a bow and arrow. The intense expression, and the elongated and exaggerated figure, with its rotating movement are a baroque masterpiece.

Any of these objects would be a stunning addition to an art museum. But in the setting of the National Geographic, visitors will discover an originality in the technical and aesthetic innovations of Peruvian art. And they will be lured to learn more about the place in which these works were created.