Thursday, December 11, 2014


The earliest forms of art came from the Mayan traditions, and these have been passed down generations.  The Mayan civilization is definitely old, but it’s not the oldest in these parts.  Art traditions of the earlier Olmecs, Toltecs, and Teotihuacans influenced Mayan arts. The Mayans had very structured cities that included courtyards, palaces, residential homes, pyramids, and ball courts. There were several types of stone sculpture including stelas (long slabs with carvings and inscriptions), lintels (spanning panels and doorways set in walls), altars, ball court markers, monumental stairs, and thrones.  Woodcarving was also common, mostly in the form of reliefs and figurines of various spiritual protectors. Stucco plaster has been used on and in buildings and other reliefs. Many of their buildings also contained large, complex mural paintings.  The Mayans also made many tools and jewelry out of jade and other special stones like obsidian and mother-of-pearl; however, the Mayans did not use metal tools.

Today, much of Guatemala’s artistic styles mix bits of traditional art forms with modern techniques and styles from North America, Europe, and other regional areas. Art schools were established, especially in the larger cities. One of the largest established schools is the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas “Rafael Rodríguez Padilla,” established in Guatemala City in 1920. It mainly focuses on painting, sculpture, and graphic arts. [So, here’s a bonus side note: the school’s name literally translates out to National School of Plastic Arts. What? A school that only makes things of plastic? No. In US English, we use the term plastic to refer to the material. It ultimately comes from a Greek word meaning “to mold,” which is its main design feature, to be able to mold it when it’s soft. Well, the term “plastic arts” pretty much refers to sculpture, ceramics, or other arts involving creating and molding 3-D objects. So, it makes sense now.]

Luis Rolando Ixquiac Xicara
Some of the leading Guatemalan artists include Luis Rolando Ixquiac Xicara (an indigenous artist from Quetzeltenango, generally known for mixing abstract art with folk imagery), Carlos Mérida (one of the first Guatemalan artists to mix European styles with Guatemalan imagery and themes, known as a muralist), Aníbal López (known for his “live art,” combining painting art with street performance), and Robert González Goyri (known for figurative reliefs, sculptures of metal or stone, and his semi-abstract paintings).

One of the oldest writings from this area is the Popol Vuh, a collection of Mayan stories and legends written in the Quiché language. It was translated into Spanish during the 18th century, and because of its subject material, it’s often considered the Mayan Bible.

The Colonial period would bring forth the first Guatemalan Spanish-language writer.  Sor Juana de Maldonado was considered the first poet and playwright of Guatemala, and Rafael Landívar was another great poet during the 16th century.  Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán was one of the prominent historians of this period.  Traditionally, poetry was generally sung, and most poetry was religious in nature. A shift in influences started to take place during the 18th century when Guatemalan literature started to use styles and forms particular to French neoclassicism.

José Milla y Vidaurre, "Pepe Milla"

Once Guatemala gained independence, its literature started to move independently from Spanish and other European literary styles.  Antonio José de Irisarri helped propel the journalism industry that grew out of the political turmoil in Guatemala during its early days. Writers such as María Josefa García Granados, José Batres Montúfar, José Milla y Vidaurre, Máximo Soto Hall, and Enrique Gómez Carrillo brought poetry and prose along to the modern period. Milla was considered the father of the Guatemalan novel, who was also known by Salomé Jil or Pepe Milla. 

Today, Guatemalan writers are on the same level as other successful writers throughout Latin American and world literature. Miguel Ángel Asturias won the Nobel Prize in 1967, most famous for his novels El Señor Presidente and Hombres de Maiz. Luis Cardoza y Aragón (poetry), Augusto Monterroso (short stories, novels, winner of the 2000 Príncipe de Asturias prize), and Carlos Solórzano (playwright) were also very successful writers and are internationally known. Much of the subject matter for modern Guatemalan literature is centered around politics and the role and treatment of the indigenous Mayan communities. Rigoberta Menchú, author of I, Rigoberta Menchú (1983), highlighted her life and immense struggles during the Civil War. She would continue to fight for peace and justice (especially against the atrocities of war crimes), leading to her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. She was also the winner of the 1998 Príncipe de Asturias prize. 

Up next: music and dance

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