The Aztecs and Urban Form in Georges Bataille, Diego Rivera, and J.G. Posada

By Lamperez, Joseph Defalco | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2016 | Go to article overview

The Aztecs and Urban Form in Georges Bataille, Diego Rivera, and J.G. Posada


Lamperez, Joseph Defalco, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay examines the work of Georges Bataille, Diego Rivera, and Jose Guadalupe Posada. I argue that Bataille and Rivera use the Aztecs to redress modernizing reforms that impoverish the human figure and urban space alike. I then claim that both representations find expression through the calaveras of J. G. Posada.

Twentieth-century French surrealists, in tandem with Mexican artists and writers, fashioned a picture of pre-Columbian Aztecs as theocratic, abounding in art, and in thrall to the power of human sacrifice. While established among specialists, this joint effort remains unacknowledged in scholarship more generally: as the editors of Surrealism in Latin America write, "Surrealism played a more significant role than has hitherto been realized in debates about art, archaeology, and anthropology in the New World" (Ades, Eder, and Speranza 3). By the time Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and Andre Breton (1896-1966) visited Mexico in 1936 and 1938, respectively, and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) took part in Breton's International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City in 1940, the collaboration between French and Mexican writers and artists had been ongoing for at least two decades. Not only were "the Aztecs [...] very much a la mode among European intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s" (Gallo 249); Surrealists had also "long been enchanted by what they called, in the title of a 1927 Paris exhibition that included both pre-Columbian and Native American works, 'American objects'" (Ades, Eder, and Speranza 3). The prehistory of this collective mythologizing extends at least to the second Franco-Mexican War of 1861, when "Napoleon III sent a French scientific commission to Mexico" (Tenorio-Trillo 44).

A romanticized account of Aztec culture was thus born from cross-pollinating research. When Rivera casts illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) as the vestige of an Aztec aesthetic sensibility, for example, he shows the influence of French muralist Jean Charlot (1898-1979), who claimed to have discovered Posada in 1920, the same year that Rivera returned to Mexico from a decade in Paris. When Georges Bataille (1897-1962) unfolds his theory of expenditure and sacrifice in The Accursed Share, he references eyewitnesses to the Aztec capitulation to Spanish violence. And when Octavio Paz (1914-98) describes the Mexican Revolution as a sublime catharsis, he shows the influence of "Surrealism's particular cult of Mexico as a place where the marvelous erupts as a daily phenomenon." More generally, a "primitivist and magical vision [...] was quickly accepted by some Latin American writers who were directly influenced by Surrealism," the emerging picture one characterized by "transcultural readings" (Stanton 216). A nostalgic picture of the Aztecs relevant to twentieth-century concerns thus emerged at the intersection of French and Mexican fascination.

Among the fashioners of this myth were those taken by its most sensational aspect: the centrality of human sacrifice to the Aztec political and religious system. "While Breton, [Benjamin] Peret, and others in their immediate circle celebrated the [Aztecs'] poetic expressiveness in both the aboriginal legends and the objects, Georges Bataille exalted blood sacrifice" (Ades, Eder, and Speranza 3-4), an institution from which he meant to distill a bygone but vital vision of the human subject. Indeed, Bataille "formulated his approach to the sacred" in reference to the Aztecs, a reading that led him to interpret "sacrifice as an act of renewal that leads to an alternative creativity based on the dismemberment of the body and the omnipresence of blood" (Eder 78). Rather than a passing interest, Aztec sacrifice became the guiding idea of his intellectual life: as Stuart Kendall writes, "The Aztecs will haunt Bataille's imagination throughout his career" (69).

Diego Rivera also believed that Aztec intimacy with the dead might recover a precious but obsolete worldview. …

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