Manuel Vilar, Tlahuicole

Manuel Vilar, Tlahuicole, the Tlaxcaltecan General, Fighting in the Gladiatorial Sacrifice, 1851, plaster, 216 cm high (Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City); a conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the National Museum of Art in Mexico City, and we’re looking at a really interesting sculpture. It’s actually a plaster that was intended to be cast. What’s fascinating is that it’s taking this neoclassical tradition and adopting it to Mexican history.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:23] The sculpture is by the artist Manuel Vilar, who was the professor of sculpture at the Academy of San Carlos, which had been established in 1785. The plaster cast that we’re seeing here was created in 1851.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] It represents something that we call the Flower Wars, and this comes from Aztec history. The Aztecs believed that they had to supply people for sacrifice on important days in the calendar, and these tended to be people that they captured from cities that they did not yet dominate.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:52] One of the main rivals of the Aztecs, it was actually a place that they were never able to conquer, was the peoples from Tlaxcala.

[0:58] This individual that we’re seeing portrayed here was a general of the Tlaxcalteca, the Tlaxcalan people, who was named Tlahuicole or Tlahicol. He’s been captured and brought back to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, and he’s going to have to engage in sacrificial combat.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] But at a major disadvantage. He’s been tethered to a large sacrificial stone. He’s been given a club, but it’s very likely that he’s up against more than one opponent who are better armed. This is all an opportunity by the artist to render the beauty and the heroic nature of the body, but, here, embodied by this native culture. This is where the politics of art come to the fore.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:37] We’re not seeing someone who seems to fear death. He has this defiant look on his face. His body conveys his strength and determination to battle unto the death. He’s standing with his legs apart. We’re seeing all his muscles flexed and tensed as he’s about to fight to the death.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] He’s so idealized. He’s so powerful. It is as if we’re looking at an ancient Greek Hellenistic sculpture, something that is almost overwrought, but with a tremendous knowledge of the body. What’s so interesting is that you’ve got this modern European tradition looking back to the ancient Roman and ancient Greek tradition, but then grafting that on to the history of Mesoamerica.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:14] This is pretty early to begin seeing this classicizing of the pre-Hispanic past. In 1851, Manuel Vilar is the first person to begin producing works that stray away from the Greco-Roman past.

[2:28] In fact, when he creates this plaster model of this Tlaxcalan general, he similarly created other work of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II or La Malinche. This is something we begin to see only in the late 1860s.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] This figure is nude, unlike the other two that you just mentioned. That may have been a bit of a violation of the social norms of Mexico at this time. The artist is taking real liberty and is clearly fascinated by the historical tradition of the heroic nude.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:57] We mentioned that this was intended to be cast in bronze and probably placed somewhere for public display. Unfortunately, due to economic downturns and probably uprisings, these were never made into bronze.

Dr. Zucker: [3:07] It is this amazing glimpse into a very specific historical and cultural moment in Mexican history.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:13] This is the moment when you have this continuing emerging sense of what it means to be Mexican and to have this sense of Mexican identity.

[3:21] [music]

Spanish-born sculptor Manuel Vilar created a plaster cast of Tlahuicole, the Tlaxcaltecan General, Fighting in the Gladiatorial Sacrifice in 1851 while working at the the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, the first art academy in the Americas. This sculpture was the first at the Academy to explicitly depict the pre-Hispanic past. Vilar used the Neoclassical style (which was based on Greco-Roman art) to portray a heroized warrior from Mexica and Tlaxcalan history.

Tlahuicole was a warrior who was captured by the Mexica (Aztecs) during a flowery war against Tlaxcala. He was forced to fight, but successfully defeated the many warriors tasked with battling him. He was pardoned and was then asked to join the Mexica army. Tlahuicole refused to fight for the Mexica, and instead accepted that he would die in ritual sacrifice.

At the time Vilar created this plaster cast other artists, authors, and historians (among others) were beginning to look to the Mexica past (and more broadly the pre-Hispanic past) in new ways to help to forge a Mexican identity in the mid-to-late 19th century. The subject of Vilar’s idealized Tlahuicole was not necessarily intended to be an accurate depiction of past events, but was an appropriation of the Indigenous past to aid in shaping what was occurring in the 19th century. Vilar and other academic artists after him often looked to the historical Indigenous past rather than turn to contemporaneous Indigenous people and stories. Using the visual language of Neoclassicism was also a way to “classicize” the Indigenous past—what art historian James Oles notes was one way of “‘civilizing the barbarian’ (in the same way that such words as ‘pyramid’ and ‘stela’ classicized pre-Hispanic ruins).” [1] This became more common in the nineteenth century after 1860.

Vilar’s sculpture was never cast in bronze as he had intended.

[1] James Oles, Art and Architecture in Mexico (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013), p. 172.

Learn more about this sculpture on the Google Arts and Culture project

Ray Hernández-Durán, The Academy of San Carlos and Mexican Art History: Politics, History, and Art in Nineteenth-Century Mexico (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2017)

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Manuel Vilar, Tlahuicole," in Smarthistory, March 4, 2021, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/manuel-vilar-tlahuicole/.