In Memoriam: Merle Greene Robertson
By Marc Zender and Joel Skidmore
|(Friday, April 22, 2011) The renowned Mayanist Merle Greene Robertson passed away in San Francisco today. Artist, art historian, photographer, and Mayanist, Merle was widely known for her extensive contributions to the investigation and preservation of the art, iconography, and writing of Maya civilization.Merle was born in Miles City, Montana, on August 30, 1913, a small town she once memorably described as “a little cattle crossing in the road” (Barnhart 2003:1). She moved to Great Falls when she was eight, a place which held her “fondest memories of childhood … the Missouri River, Giant Springs, the sand hills, high mountains, mountain goats, and those great blue Montana skies, those wide-open spaces” (Robertson 2006:25). Merle’s descriptions of her childhood environment in interviews and her autobiography Never in Fear (2006) are invariably painterly, mingling broad strokes of color with intimate descriptions of the natural surroundings, and she regularly associated these with her own development as an artist. As Peter Mathews (2006:13) wrote in his foreword to Merle’s autobiography:Two aspects of [Merle’s] youth in Montana were to have a large influence over the direction of her life. One was an interest in Native American culture. Merle’s family spent their vacations beside a mountain lake at the edge of Glacier National Park. Merle frequently went with her father to visit his friends, Blackfoot Indian chiefs, and it was here that she learned Indian sign language. The other influence was the great artist Charles M. Russell, who lived in Great Falls. The young Merle spent many an afternoon on his front porch observing and learning about painting.
In her second year of high school, Merle’s family relocated to Seattle, where she later begin university studies. Given the twin loves of her childhood, it is perhaps hardly to be wondered at that Merle took a degree in art. “Later,” as Peter Mathews (2006:13) recounts, “she went to the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Here for three summers she studied watercolors, oils, photography, and mural painting from Mexico’s top mural instructor, earning her MFA from the University of Guanajuato.”
Merle would eventually make “about four thousand” rubbings (Barnhart 2003:4) during the course of a distinguished career spanning some five decades (Doyle 2000). These are now all critically important documents, many of them preserving details of the carved surfaces of monuments which have since deteriorated through erosion or been destroyed by the increasingly damaging depredations of looters. Today, more than 2,000 of Merle’s rubbings are housed in the Merle Greene Robertson Collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Department of Tulane University’s Latin American Library in New Orleans (Hernández and Dressing 2011). Since 1993, Merle’s entire collection of rubbings has been available to scholars and amateurs on CD, and they can also be viewed online at Mesoweb (http://www.mesoweb.com/rubbings). Merle’s work in preserving Guatemala’s Maya cultural heritage through these rubbings was acknowledged by the Museo Popol Vuh in 2004, when Merle was awarded the Orden del Pop (Museo Popol Vuh 2004).
As Peter Mathews (2006:15) has noted
[O]ne could be forgiven for thinking that part-time exploring and “rubbing” would be quite enough to fill a life, but we’re only just beginning to recount Merle’s accomplishments. Her first love of the jungle was at Tikal, and in Mexico it has always been Palenque. During the 1970s she worked tirelessly, documenting the sculpture of Palenque. … The result of Merle’s Palenque work is brilliantly documented in the sumptuous series The Sculpture of Palenque, published by Princeton University Press [Robertson 1983-1991]. In this study, … Merle has shown in great detail … exactly how the beautiful stucco sculptures were built up, layer by layer, by the Palenque artists. She has investigated the paints that were used to color the sculptures, searching out pigment sources in the Palenque region and painstakingly experimenting to reproduce the exact colors used by the Palenque artists. In the process, she was able to document the entire method of making beautiful stucco sculptures for which Palenque is so famous.
Merle’s rubbings, photographs, paintings, and drawings of Palenque’s architecture and sculpture represent a lasting resource. In 1993, the Mexican government acknowledged Merle’s remarkable contributions to the study of Palenque with an Order of the Aztec Eagle (Mathews 2006:17).
Of equally lasting importance to the study of Palenque specifically, but also to Maya studies in general, have been Merle’s series of Palenque Round Table conferences. Begun in December, 1973, and continuing annually and then semi-annually in eight separate meetings, the last held in June, 1993, the Mesa Redonda de Palenque produced numerous breakthroughs in the presentation and publication of Maya studies, producing ten volumes of conference proceedings edited by Merle and others. These critical meetings have since been continued by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico, with Merle in the capacity of Honorary President (Mathews 2006:16).
In 1982, Merle founded the Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, a non-profit organization which has conducted important research in Mesoamerican art, iconography, and epigraphy. PARI has published numerous scholarly monographs and the quarterly PARI Journal and has sponsored the archaeological investigations of the Cross Group Project at Palenque.
Merle’s contributions to the study of the Maya will never be forgotten, so important is her legacy of documentation of primary materials in the form of drawing, paintings, photographs, and rubbings. But she will be sorely missed by her family, friends, colleagues, students, and legions of admirers. K’a’ayi usik sakik’aal. http://mesoweb.com/reports/Merle.html