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The Birthing Figure in the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 14:53 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

“Inspiring Art” special exhibition, featuring the Birthing Figure.

On display at Dumbarton Oaks in the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art is an aplite sculpture of a woman giving birth. It is, perhaps, the most famous and recognizable piece in the Bliss Collection. Since Robert Bliss acquired it from the dealer Ernest Brummer in 1947, the sculpture has been in fifteen exhibitions and is credited with inspiring the gold figure that Indiana Jones pursues in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is also the inspiration for Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s painting Childbirth.

For over fifty years, this sculpture was considered to be Late Postclassic Aztec (ca. 900–1521) and to represent Tlazolteotl, an Aztec deity associated with both supplying a person with sin and, in turn, removing it. The gender-neutral name Tlazolteotl means “filth deity.” In addition to being a patroness of childbirth, Tlazolteotl was fused with many Aztec goddesses, including Ixcuina, the goddess of spinning, weaving, and fertility, who, in another case of identity fusion, simultaneously embodied four sisters.

Having generated so much attention over the years, the sculpture has also produced its critics. Many of the characteristics that made the sculpture popular to modern audiences, such as the impassioned face of the figure in the midst of the agony of childbirth, the nudity of the figure, and the highly polished finish, are the very qualities that skeptics point out as evidence that the work is a forgery. Such critics assert that the work appeals too strongly to contemporary tastes, suggesting that it was crafted as late as the nineteenth century in the Aztec style. Moreover, the carving technique used to fashion the sculpture appears through microscopic analysis to be decidedly Post-Columbian rather than Pre-Columbian.

Despite the controversy, this sculpture remains a public favorite. As such, it has acquired a modern cultural identity that transcends the issues of origin and genuineness. For many, the sculpture has a powerful hold on the human imagination and has become an icon of the power and pain of childbirth. This notwithstanding, as a museum object at a research institute, it also stands as an icon of the ever-changing perceptions and connoisseurship in the field of Pre-Columbian studies. The sculpture was the focus of a 2013–14 exhibition at Dumbarton Oaks, Inspiring Art, which Washington Post critic, John Kelly, called “a very cool exhibit . . . in fact, it may be the coolest thing currently in a Washington museum.”