In her new book, How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization, classicist Mary Beard invokes the example of the Olmec heads to assert that “how we look can confuse, even distort, our understanding of civilisations beyond our own.” She argues that 18th-century scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann cited the Apollo Belvedere—a sculpture of an idealized human form, either Greek or Roman, its date of creation unknown—as being the “very pinnacle of classical art.” Future generations understood the work as a manifestation of expertly worked out proportions and “civilized” society.
That’s why, Beard suggests, it wasn’t the colossal stone heads but Olmec Wrestler
(date unknown) that became “the poster boy not just for the Olmec but for all ancient Mexico,” beginning in the 1960s. Unlike the oversized Olmec heads, the seated figure displays more lifelike proportions, and his arms appear strong and ready to fight; he’s unlike any other discoveries from Mexican antiquity—and is now even considered a potential fake. The Wrestler
to have been found in 1933 by a farmer near Veracruz, but its stone is unlike any of the area’s natural materials. “The wrestler seems to fall outside many of the canons known for Olmec monumental sculpture,” Susan Millbrath wrote in a 1979 study. She suggested that the wrestler represents “a little-known aspect of Olmec monumental art.”
The Mexican government purchased the sculpture as part of an attempt to glorify the country’s cultural past. As opposed to Melgar y Serrano, who’d tied ancient Mexican civilization to Africa, the 20th-century authorities seemed compelled to link their past with that of Greece and Rome.
Beard herself is suspicious of the Wrestler’s provenance. She writes, “If this is the work of an outstanding Olmec sculptor, it is one who by chance got later tastes spot on, hitting on the particular blend that we often look for in the art of other cultures: that it should be sufficiently different from our own to count as foreign, but at the same time fully understandable in our own aesthetic terms.”