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José Clemente Orozco

Mexican Cartoonist, Printmaker, Painter, and Muralist

José Clemente Orozco Photo
Born: November 23, 1883
Zapotlán (now Cuidad Guzmán), Mexico
Died: September 7, 1949
Mexico City, Mexico
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Painting assails the mind, it persuades the heart
José Clemente Orozco Signature

Summary of José Clemente Orozco

Of "Los tres grandes" (The Three Greats) of the Mexican Muralists, José Clemente Orozco, notoriously introverted and pessimistic, is in many ways the least revered. One possible explanation for that is that, unlike his colleagues, David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, Orozco openly criticized both the Mexican Revolution and the post-Revolution government. What was perceived as standoffishness was, by all accounts, the profound despair of a person who felt deeply for others. Orozco's style is a mixture of conventional, Renaissance-period compositions and modeling, emotionally expressive, modernist abstraction, typically dark, ominous palettes, and forms and iconography deriving from the country's indigenous, pre-colonial, pre-European art. Orozco's skill as a cartoonist and print maker is detectable not only in his style but also in his ability to communicate a complex message -- generally, timely political subjects -- simply and on a massive scale. The Mexican Muralist movement as a whole asserted the importance of large-scale public art and Orozco's murals, in particular, made space for bold, open social and political critique.

Key Ideas

Biography of José Clemente Orozco

José Clemente Orozco Photo

Orozco, one of four brothers, spent his first years in the southwestern region of Jalisco, Mexico. His father had a soap, ink, and coloring factory in addition to being an editor for the newspaper, La Abeja. His mother was a housewife who occasionally gave the women of the community painting classes. The family moved first to Guadalajara and then Mexico City in the hopes of improving their financial situation. Despite their efforts, however, the times were not easy for middle-class families and it was often difficult for the family to make ends meet.

Important Art by José Clemente Orozco

Maternity (1923-24)

Maternity (1923-24)

This mural is one of Orozco's earliest frescoes, painted for the ground floor of the National Preparatory School (ENP) in Mexico City. Maternity depicts a mother and child; it resembles Renaissance depictions of Mary and the infant Jesus, with the exception of the conspicuous nudity of the mother. Allegorical Boticelli-esque females in deep folds of windblown drapery surround the mother and child. A sensual, reclining nude female turns her back to the viewer as she eats grapes, the fruit associated with Dionysus and celebration. The women are noticeably European: blond and with classical features. The Renaissance influence is striking not only in the representation of the figures themselves but also in the pyramidal composition and the lapis lazuli-colored garment the mother wears, a color traditionally linked to the figure of the Virgin Mary.

Following the Mexican Revolution, the new government encouraged the production of public art to promote a nationalist program of unity, of the concept of an integrated populace or "Mexicanos." However, Orozco's use of overtly European figures seems to challenge the assertion by an increasingly authoritarian government that equality had been achieved. In this work, the beauty standard is European rather than indigenous. Here we see Orozco subtly critique the very institution that commissioned him for the work.

This particular mural is of immense value because it is the only surviving one of Orozco's earliest frescoes, as most were destroyed by conservative students at the ENP while others were demolished by Orozco himself. In fact, a group of Catholic women misinterpreted the secular meaning of Maternity, thought it sacrilegious, and attacked it.

The Trench (1926)

The Trench (1926)

Orozco was forced to stop working at the ENP in 1924. He destroyed some of his early work there but returned in 1926 to add a new set of frescoes to the ground floor. The Trench is one of the works that he produced during his second stay at the ENP and is dramatically different from his earlier works at that site such as Maternity. The softly delineated flesh of the figures in the earlier work and the Renaissance elegance of the overall rendering in Maternity has given way to a frank, modernist style in which forms are less modeled, line is expressive, and the palette reflective of the dark, emotional content of the mural.

The Trench depicts soldiers fighting in the Mexican Revolution. The three fallen, faceless men form a cross. The sharp diagonal of the composition and the vivid red of the background convey the scene's drama. Due to Orozco's new interest in modern art, with its representations of space and time as mutable and relative, the three men could be interpreted as a single soldier depicted in different moments in time.

By 1929, the morale of the populace regarding the Revolution had deteriorated considerably compared to the early optimism of 1923. With The Trench, Orozco illustrates his refusal to idealize the Revolution as Rivera and Siqueiros did. Having witnessed it directly (unlike Rivera, who was in Paris) and been thoroughly scarred by the ferocity of his countrymen during the Revolution, Orozco seeks to promote peace by denouncing the violence of revolution. This mural is expressionistic, contrasting with the placid depiction of Maternity.

Prometheus (1930)

Prometheus (1930)

Orozco painted a monumental Prometheus reaching up to the sky to take fire, a symbol of wisdom and enlightenment, from the ceiling panel that depicts stylized flames, representing God, the source of wisdom. The Titan is about to give mankind the power of knowledge for which Zeus will cruelly punish him, as the Greek myth recounts. Around Prometheus stand masses of mortal humans, some eagerly anticipating the gift, others preoccupied or in various states of agitation.

With this mural Orozco opposed the prevailing idea that wall paintings ought to be decorous, impersonal, and pleasant. While the theme is certainly appropriate for a University, Orozco's Expressionism is displayed on a massive scale as no one before him had done. His work, Prometheus, is the first modern fresco in the United States.

Orozco no longer relies on the stable, pyramidal composition of earlier works but rather creates a figure that, while adamantly central, seems to be rising up out of the top of the composition, aided by the frenetic activity on each side, diagonal elements that seem to push the central figure from either side. Flashes of the blue complete with the powerful red flesh, and heavy black marks that create the forceful upward thrust.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"José Clemente Orozco Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 11 Jul 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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