José Clemente Orozco Artworks
Mexican Cartoonist, Printmaker, Painter, and Muralist
Zapotlán (now Cuidad Guzmán), Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico
Progression of Art
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.
Fresco - National Preparatory School (ENP), Mexico City, Mexico
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.
Fresco - National Preparatory School (ENP), Mexico City, Mexico
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.
Fresco - Pomona College, CA, United States
The Table of Universal Brotherhood
This stark scene is one of a series of murals in the "Orozco Room" at The New School in New York City and is complemented by three others, which are allegories of the Mexican Revolution using images of Gandhi, Carrillo Puerto, and Lenin. On a fourth wall is a mural featuring a group of workers and another of slaves who are returning home after a day of heavy labor. The cycle culminates with this view of a victory and an idealized brotherhood of man.
The scene pictured here depicts people of varying nationalities and professions sitting around a disproportionately large table rendered using a tipped-forward perspective; an open book rests on the far right corner. One of the characters, in the role of the festaijuolo in early Renaissance paintings, looks out to the viewer, inviting him -- note that there are no women represented here -- to complete the semicircle at the end of the table that was left explicitly empty.
The style is one of expressionistic economy, devoid of details and excessive rendering. Orozco is said to have constructed the image based on esoteric texts by Jay Hambridge, a geometrician who promoted "geometric-aesthetic principles" in art. The dark, somber palette of the work emphasizes the artist's cynical perspective with respect to the outcome of the Mexican Revolution and the possibility of a pluralistic, democratic governing brotherhood. While he had hoped that the work would galvanize the viewer, not only intellectually but also viscerally, into helping realize just such a universal brotherhood, very little about the image invites optimism or is suggestive of inclusiveness.
In the artistic context of the US in the early 1930s, when artists with styles as disparate as those of Mondrian and Grant Wood were actively producing avant-garde art, a work like this fresco would have been a complete novelty both in terms of scale and function. The murals of the three great Mexican muralists were intended to be accessible to the public, although, in truth, accessibility was often quite limited. Their patrons were frequently institutions that could afford to fund such extensive works and thus the capacity of the murals on the whole to promote the message of Mexican unity was radically diminished and, arguably, limited to an elite viewership.
Fresco - The New School, NY, United States
The Epic of American Civilization
This fascinating mural cycle comprised of 24 panels, covering four walls in the Baker Library, is a complex and layered depiction of the history of the American continent. Broken down, it essentially depicts three stages of the Americas: pre-Hispanic times, colonial times marked by the arrival of Europeans, and the modern industrial era. Reducing the story to its bare skeleton, it recounts that, in the beginning, pre-European culture was barbaric and primitive, engaging in human sacrifice and war until the arrival of Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl is personified here as a pre-Hispanic deity of wisdom who brought learning, science, and art to the people, creating a civilization and ushering in a Golden Age. Eventually, infuriated by those who did not follow his precepts, according to the myth, Quetzalcoatl left promising to return centuries later to destroy the civilization that failed to grasp his message.
The second panel illustrates the return of Quetzalcoatl, incarnated in the figure of Cortes, coming to destroy all native culture and to impose European values on the native civilization. The subsequent panels depict the impact of European technology and culture as well as the consequences of industrialization. Machines that are fed with the corpses of those killed by Cortés represent society's suffocating dependence on modern technology. Similarly, Orozco represents institutional education as sterile and dead, oppressive rather than instrumental to higher learning.
The overarching message of the mural cycle is communicated not only by the narrative, but also by Orozco's style: the first panels are clear and harmonious while the ones depicting modern times are chaotic and overcrowded, causing the viewer to feel overwhelmed. In this particular image, it is possible to detect the strong influence of indigenous art, with the palette of earthtones combined with splashes of bright color, the stylized linearity of the forms, and the pronounced pyramidal arrangement of forms so evocative of the sacred structures of ancient Mexico.
The cycle is crucial in illustrating out a fundamental difference between Orozco and his contemporary Mexican muralists. For instance, Rivera represented the same general theme but infused it with optimism; his cycle characterizes white European colonialism as progress rather than deterioration. Orozco, on the other hand, made the later panels of this cycle grotesquely mirror the beginning ones: Ancient Human Sacrifice becomes Modern Human Sacrifice in such a way that there's no progress at all, but merely the exchanging of one barbaric behavior for another much like it. Thus Orozco brought introspection, criticism, and ambiguity to Mexican muralism as none of his contemporaries had done.
Fresco - Dartmouth College, NH, United States
When ascending the main staircase of the Government Palace, the viewer will be dwarfed by the enormous (over 13,000 square feet) fresco covering the ceiling and walls. In this work, Orozco's skill as a cartoonist stands out prominently. Just as likely, the influence of both indigenous art and modernist abstraction play key roles in the artist's move away from Renaissance-influenced rendering. Figures and objects, most all of which are painted in stark, sobering shades of gray to contrast with the flame-like orange and red that surrounds Hidalgo like a mandorla, are described using the most economical and stylized of means. The sweeping, curvilinear outlines of forms both distinguish one from the next and create a seemingly unified, swirling, chaotic mass of desperate humanity.
This mural depicts Miguel Hidalgo, a priest who called the Indian people to revolt on September 16, 1810. Although the revolt was unsuccessful, he is regarded as the person who instigated the Mexican push for independence. In the mural, Hidalgo, stern-faced and monumental, in scale as only a pantocrator would be depicted, offers a sick and war-ridden mankind fire - a clear allusion to the Prometheus myth.
In keeping with his alternative, anti-colonial readings of Mexican history, Orozco sought both to praise Hidalgo for his role in encouraging the Indians' rebellion and to condemn him, a Roman Catholic priest, whose task it was to indoctrinate the Indians in a foreign faith. Thus, as Orozco framed it, while Hidalgo fought for the oppressed he was also tragically contributing to their oppression. In line with his anarchic ideals, Orozco condemns all institutional creeds in this complicated series of images.
Fresco - Government Palace, Guadalajara, Mexico