CODEX-STYLE VESSEL with two Scenes of Itzam Instructing Young Pupils,
c. A.D. 700-750.
Ceramic cup. Click image to enlarge.
The elder deity Itzam, wearing a pre-Columbian snood, teaches young men lessons about the creation cycle of the gods. There is much to admire in this beautiful, subtly caricatured drawing of the learning process. Teachers of any era can relate to the mood that the gifted (unknown) artist presents in two scenes of classroom knowledge transference. The silhouettes of the characters leaning in are strong as visual storytelling poses. Also, there is the stern facial expression of the hunched-over professor, looking intensely at his students, challenging their comprehension of the lessons. In one scene, Itzam speaks, while elegantly, casually gesturing with a writing instrument, toward a folded codex on the floor, as two circular speech lines (the birth of comic strip balloons) conjure arithmetical symbols. In a second scene, Itzam taps a thin finger on the floor to emphasize points as a glyph lecture emanates from his mouth, again via a dotted speech line. The attentive, respectful pupils soak up the master’s teachings. Stylish thick and thin painted outlines offer realistic anatomies of each individualized man; their torso skin folding over, their arms contrasting straight (bone) with rounded (muscle) shapes. This is an understated early example of the animation principle “stretch-and-squash,” which the great Disney film animator Milt Kahl admired in Degas nudes, where “you’ll have something that’s fairly straight and then, as the weight comes into it, you’ll get the bulging of the muscles . . . you’re making statements when you do that.”

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