WASHINGTON — 'BUT you can't move Machu Picchu to the Mall," explains the curator of "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration," which opened yesterday at the National Gallery of Art here.Not being able to move the Inca stone civilizations of Machu Picchu to the Mall is just one of the problems that exhibition managing curator Jay Levenson is facing as he looks up from three and a half years of assembling the blockbuster show. Another is balancing traditional views of Columbus and his era with today's emphasis on political correctness regarding native people whose continent Columbus landed on. "It's hard to judge quincentenary people by 20th-century standards,' says Dr. Levenson. "But basically if you take our approach, which is to take a look at the entire world around 1492, what Columbus and the other explorers did comes in to the right kind of perspective. "What the Europeans did is quite astonishing, but it isn't the whole story of the world in that period...." He explains that the original idea for the "Circa 1492" show came up in the 1970s when planning for a bicentennial art show. The global art show was tabled for 1492. "So the idea goes way back sort of beyond the dawn of political correctness." Still Levenson has gone literally to the ends of the earth to assemble an exhibit that reflects not only the traditional but the politically correct view. "The Incas unquestionably had the greatest empire in the Americas, and maybe the world. What they did was quite astonishing. But in terms of global works of art there isn't a whole lot left. In a way their most important artwork and sculpture were those incredible stone cities they put at the heights of the Andes." The problem, he says, is "we had to find basically transportable works. So what's left are beautiful textiles; textiles in the Andes are a wonderful tradition.... And then there are various figures, human and animal, found in archeological and sacrificial sites.... But we know from the descriptions of Spanish chronicles that [the Incas] had life-sized statues ... which were all melted down [by the Spaniards] to the very last one. So this gives you an idea of the splendor on a smaller scale." Also included in the show is the world's finest collection of pre-Columbian gold from a museum owned by Colombia's Central Bank, and Costa Rican gold from that country's bank museum. The exhibition includes two out of the 10 Aztec manuscripts in existence. But art from some American peoples simply didn't survive. "There was tremendous destruction in the 16th century and that's not covered up" in this show, Levenson says. "Mexico City or Tenochtitlao was one of the great cities of the world." Then the Spaniards under Cortez came. "And it's all gone" says Levenson. Levenson stresses that in each area of the exhibit "we tried to find the best objects in that area we could." He points out that all the famous paintings that are versions of Columbus discovering America are 19th-century paintings. "The only images we have [of Columbus] that are absolutely contemporary [are] illustrations in some of the very earliest printed versions of letters that Columbus sent back to Queen Isabella [of Spain]. We have one of these." Even in the European section of the exhibition, he says, it's sometimes difficult to find art that's portable enough. "Some things were just never made to travel. The greatest cathedrals, every bit as much as Machu Picchu," says Levenson.
A review of the National Gallery's 'Circa 1492' show appears in the Arts pages Thursday.