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  • Aztec Cubists between Paris and New York:Diego Rivera, Marius de Zayas, and the Reception of Mexican Antiquities in the 1910s
  • Laura Moure Cecchini (bio)

Diego Rivera's identity as a Mexican played a fundamental role in the construction of his artistic style and persona. Indeed, most of his murals include references to Mexican folk and indigenous art, and to the Aztec and Mayan past—depicted as a peaceful utopia contrasting with the violence of the Spanish Conquest. Rivera was also an important collector of pre-Colombiana, acquiring more than sixty thousand such objects, now housed in the museum in Mexico City that he conceived and created for his collection.1

Also significant in this regard is that when he was living in Europe in his late twenties and early thirties Rivera incorporated Mexican folk motifs in some of his modernist easel paintings. In My Art, My Life—the memoir he wrote with Gladys March from 1944 until his death in 1957—Rivera said that all the paintings he made in Paris in the 1910s "distinctly show the influence of the pre-Conquest tradition of Mexican art. Even the landscapes I did from life in Europe were essentially Mexican in feeling."2 An exhibition organized in New York City in 1916 by Marius de Zayas, a Mexican caricaturist, writer, and art dealer, a close associate of Alfred Stieglitz, and a pivotal figure in introducing modern art to the United States, appears to confirm this retroactive assessment (fig. 1). In October 1916 de Zayas presented in his Modern Gallery works that Rivera had painted from 1911 to 1915 together with Aztec sculpture and Nahua pottery. [End Page 251]

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Fig 1.

Alfred Stieglitz, Marius de Zayas, 1915, platinum print, 9 5/8 × 7 5/8 in. Alfred Stieglitz Collection, The Department of Photographs of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

This was a very unusual pairing at the time. The Modern Gallery—which opened at 500 Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street in October 1915 and closed two and a half years later—was a pioneer in the exhibition of avant-garde and African art in North America.3 De Zayas often paired African sculpture with avant-garde art, but the Exhibition of Mexican Pre-Conquest Art—Exhibition of Paintings by Diego Rivera was the only one in his entire career as an art dealer and curator in which he displayed avant-garde paintings with pre-Columbian objects. [End Page 252]

The juxtaposition of Rivera's paintings with Mesoamerican art might seem almost trivial now, given how much of his work resonates with modern Mexico's nationalistic recuperation of its Aztec and Mayan past. However, in 1916 Rivera was not yet the official painter of postrevolutionary Mexico. Since 1907 he had lived in Europe, dividing his time between Spain and France. His 1907 Self-portrait shows a young artist with no visible signs of Mexican identity; his darkened skin might signal his ethnicity or just his floppy hat's shadow (fig. 2). Staring at the viewer, the young Rivera sports two visible signs of the international bohemia to which he and his friends at the time—Gino Severini, Amedeo Modigliani, Jacques Lipchitz, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso—belonged: a tobacco pipe and a glass full of beer. Rivera was an active participant in the Parisian avant-garde community. In 1912 and 1913 he exhibited at the Salon d'Automne, and in 1913 with the Groupe Libre at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune; he also may have shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1910, 1913, and 1914 (scholars disagree about his participation in these salons).4

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Fig 2.

Diego Rivera, Self-Portrait with Broad-Brimmed Hat, 1907, oil on canvas, 84 cm × 61 cm. Museo Dolores Olmedo (Mexico City) © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

[End Page 253]

Recent exhibitions in Los Angeles and Mexico City have compared the modernist primitivism of Rivera and Picasso and their interest in revitalizing modern art through the appropriation of formal features of non-European objects.5 Yet...


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