José Clemente Orozco In The United States, 1927-1934 at Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

Published: November 29, 2002 at 12:00 am


José Clemente Orozco In The United States, 1927-1934 at Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

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By Stephen May

HANOVER, N.H. — Diego Rivera is the most famous of the major Mexican muralists of the Twentieth Century, celebrated for his life with wife Frida Kahlo, his controversial artwork and his outspoken support for communist causes. On the other hand, his contemporary and frequent rival José Clemente Orozco was about his equal as an artist and arguably created work that was even stronger and more politically charged than Rivera’s.

“José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934,” on view at the Hood Museum of Art of Dartmouth College through December 15, offers fascinating insights into the passion and power of this modern Mexican master. It is comprised of more than 120 paintings, drawings and mural studies for frescoes he created while in this country. Elsewhere on the Dartmouth campus visitors can see the largest and most ambitious mural Orozco completed in the United States.

The exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum in collaboration with the Museo de Art Carollo Gil in Mexico City (where it will be seen January 25-April 13) and the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Arts, Mexico. The show was curated by Renato Ganzalez Mello, professor and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Diane Miliotes, research curator at the Hood Museum.

This is the most comprehensive exhibition devoted to Orozco’s work in nearly two decades and the first major Orozco museum show in this country in more than four decades. It reveals much about his evolution as an artist, his experiences as an immigrant painter, the manner in which he organized his murals, his influence on the subsequent surge of American mural work and his responses to life during the Great Depression in this country.

Orozco’s fellow Mexican muralists Rivera and David Alfaro Sigueiros also visited the United States around the same time, but their stays were brief and perhaps less influential. Traveling north in search of new commissions for their work, the “Big Three” muralists were confronted with an unfamiliar culture, a complex art market and a modern society that both attracted and repelled them.

Orozco’s seven years in America, coinciding with unprecedented cultural exchanges between Mexico and the United States, resulted in three important murals. He also created a significant body of work in other formats that reflected his ambivalent attitude toward the United States. Indeed, the powerful manner in which the immigrant painter skewered hypocrisy, greed and oppression in contemporary American society challenged conventional conservative views to such an extent that demands were made to destroy his works.

Nevertheless, the international recognition his United States murals attracted enhanced Orozco’s reputation, enabling him to return to his native land in 1934 with increased stature and greater opportunities for Mexican mural work. The influence of his stay north of the border is reflected in his post-1934 output.

Born in the Mexican countryside and raised in Mexico City, Orozco (1883-1949) began art studies at an early age and took up political cartooning around 1910. As Mexico went through nearly a decade of civil war and domestic turmoil, 1910-1917, banditry, lawlessness and social strife abounded. He depicted the excesses of both supporters of the old regime and often-warring revolutionary factions. “[T]he world was torn apart around us,” Orozco recalled.

Around 1917 he traveled to the United States for the first time, spending time in San Francisco and New York until returning to Mexico in 1919. As a young adult Orozco lost his left hand and his vision and hearing were damaged in an accidental explosion.

He took up mural painting in the early 1920s, creating both esoteric panels and images of contemporary political figures. He also created caricatures for a publication closely aligned with the Mexican Communist party.

Beginning in Mexico in 1926 and finishing in the United States in 1928, Orozco executed a series of highly graphic drawings, “The Horrors of the Revolution” (later called “Mexico in Revolution”), that paralleled Franciso Goya’s famed “Disasters of War.” Depicting waves of violence that ravaged his homeland, Orozco’s pictures ranged from an explicit rendering of a gang rape, to a horrific view of bandaged combatants, to a scene of a somber gathering, “The Requiem,” 1926-28. These are simplified, unsparing, potent images not easily forgotten.

When Orozco arrived in New York in 1927, aged 43, he had a big reputation in his homeland, but few entrees into the highly competitive art market of The Big Apple. He hoped for mural work, but first had to establish himself in this country.

Discouraged and lonely at first, Orozco roamed the city, visiting museums and galleries, observing the distinctive architecture, sampling the entertainment scene and studying the diverse nature of its inhabitants. In early experiments with lithography and small-format paintings he conveyed his impressions of a modern metropolis that he found dynamic and exciting, yet cold, commercial and conformist.

His dark, brooding canvases of 1928, such as “The Subway,” “The Elevated,” “Eighth Avenue” and “New York Factory, Williamsburg,” suggest his affinity for the painterly quality, tone and directness of the Ashcan School. His fascination with New York’s monumental skyscrapers, mechanical forms and enormous bridges is reflected in his ground-level view of a soaring structure, “The Queensborough Bridge,” 1928, an oil painting executed with a nearly monochromatic palette. By contrast, the almost abstract forms suggesting rising girders and structural supports, enlivened by vibrant blue and red pigments, make “Elevated,” 1929-30, a memorable painting.

After frequenting the city’s small theaters he executed his first lithograph, the somber “Vaudeville in Harlem,” 1928. In “Coney Island Side-Show,” 1928, Orozco captured the commercialized sexuality of a smiling show girl in the garish colors and deep shadows of an expressive oil canvas.

He powerfully conveyed the alienation and impersonality of American city life, exacerbated by bitterness and melancholy brought on by the Depression in a poignant lithograph, “Unemployed,” 1932, and a small, drab but compelling painting, “Winter,” 1932, showing bundled-up company men in the street.

In New York the Mexican visitor also bitingly satirized the city’s pretentious wealthy class. In “The Committee on Art,” 1932, a black wash, he depicted a procession of hefty, affluent patrons preening in their expensive finery. Similarly “snooty Park Avenue types” appear in an oil painting, “Successful People,” 1932, an unflattering portrayal of a couple whose frozen, haughty expressions and cold eyes belie the canvas’s upbeat title.

Orozco’s depictions of the American scene helped him counter the perception that he was a painter only of Mexican themes. At the same time, he recognized an opportunity to capitalize on the new American admiration for things Mexican that had developed by the late 1920s. This affinity for Mexican subjects grew out of interest in political and social developments south of the border and art related to them. American views were also colored by a perception that Mexico was land of romantic primitivism, a rural Eden unspoiled by time or modernity.

Responding to this opportunity, Orozco executed a number of works with Mexican subject matter. Along the highlights of this section of the exhibition are “Mexican Hills,” 1930, and “Mexican Pueblo,” 1932, oil canvases that feature simplified forms and vivid color schemes. These appealing images “reflect…[Orozco’s] avoidance of any approach to Mexican subject matter that could be considered folkloric or picturesque,” writes Timothy Rub, the Hood’s former director, in the catalog introduction. They also reflect the artist’s “respect for the indigenous cultures of his native country and his involvement with the agenda for the development of a new, post-revolutionary art in Mexico,” Rub adds.

After 1930 Orozco returned to themes recalling the violence, brutality and conflicting rebel factions of revolutionary Mexico. There are a number of standout oil paintings on view characterized by monumental, sculptural forms and astute compositions, including “Wounded Soldier,” 1930, “Zapata,” 1930, “Pancho Villa,” 1931, and “Zapatistas,” 1931. The latter, an especially colorful, striking portrayal of a procession of determined peasants and their camp followers marching forward under the eyes of rebel leaders on horseback, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Before coming to the United States, Orozco had received several government commissions to paint prominent murals in Mexico between 1923 and 1927. Such work was part of the post-revolutionary state’s effort to promote indigenous Mexican culture and the mixing of Indian and European races. Orozco regarded the mural as “the highest, the most logical, the purest form of painting,” and applauded the fact that “It is for the people. It is for All.”

Mexican muralism, blending artistic modernism with the academic training of painters, spawned works that were diverse and aesthetically vigorous, yet sufficiently figurative to be legible to all viewers. Dominating Mexican painting until the 1950s, it inspired generations of painters in Latin America and the United States, and, due to its government sponsorship, offered a model for the New Deal’s public art programs in this country in the 1930s.

In the United States, in contrast to his homeland, Orozco had to rely solely on private patrons for mural work. Depression-era economic restraints further hindered his search for commissions. He did not receive the first of his three mural commissions in the United States until 1930.

For Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., Orozco painted “Prometheus,” designed for the college’s new, high-ceilinged, neo-Gothic style dining room in Frary Hall. In four panels, executed in a modern fresco technique, he depicted the heroically defiant figure from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind and was punished with eternal torment for his act of noble self-sacrifice.

Preparatory drawings on view in the exhibition –– primarily life studies of torsos and hands –– demonstrate the careful manner in which Orozco composed the mural. The main central panel focuses on a monumental, contorted Prometheus surrounded by human figures. Orozco gave the hero a muscular, Mr Universe body, enhancing contrasts to the smaller, attenuated forms of the masses around him.

Choosing a theme of “universal significance,” the Mexican offered an allegory of rebellion against insensitive, unjust authority that suggested his personal feelings about modern politics and society. To this day, “Prometheus” is a spectacular sight to behold in the otherwise staid Pomona dining hall.

That commission was followed by a mural cycle for the dining room of the progressive New School for Social Research in New York. Located on West 12th Street in Manhattan, the recently completed, international-style building was designed to showcase examples of contemporary art. Painted in 1930-1931, this mural realized Orozco’s dream of executing such a work in New York and enhanced his reputation as an artist of the same stature as Rivera.

Choosing a theme of universal brotherhood and contemporary political independence movements, Orozco created an allegorical panel representing ideal human existence, and two historical-political panels showing global struggles for national liberation.

In the culminating, sober picture, “Table of Universal Brotherhood,” he depicted 11 male representatives of various races and ethnic groups gathered around a table, at the head of which sit a trio of “despised races” –– a Mexican peasant, a black man and a Jew.

Other walls feature “Struggle in the Orient,” showing slaves rebelling against colonial rulers and a large, serene figure of Indian pacifist leader Mahatma Gandhi. On the opposite wall, “Struggle in the Occident” offers revolutionary images of Mexico and the Soviet Union, with busts of a slain Yucatan government official, representing Mexican socialism, and Vladimir Lenin, representing Soviet communism.

When they were unveiled, the New School murals attracted considerable attention to the artist, albeit via mixed critical reviews. Some 20,000 visitors viewed the panels in the first ten weeks after their completion. The overt political content of the Mexican and Soviet panels led to their censorship during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

At the instigation of members of the art department at Dartmouth College, Orozco’s largest and most ambitious mural cycle, “Epic of American Civilization,” was commissioned. Its total cost, including the artist’s expense, came to $10,000.

Critics of the project regarded it as an extravagance for the financially pressed institution, objected to hiring a foreign artist and responded negatively to its powerful imagery and unflinching social commentary. The latter objections brought the work national attention.

“The walls of Dartmouth now contain as savage an attack on American civilization as ever issued from the councils of red revolution,” one critic proclaimed, adding along with others that the pictures should be destroyed. (The commissioning and destruction of Rivera’s famous fresco for the RCA Building in New York, in which Dartmouth alumnus Nelson A. Rockefeller was involved, undoubtedly influenced opposition to Orozco’s mural among graduates and others.)

Members of the art department and Dartmouth President Ernest M. Hopkins stoutly defended the project, saying it was consistent with principles of a liberal education. “There are those who object to the fundamental ideas suggested,” Hopkins wrote to one critic, “but my conception of a college is a place where such ideas should be considered.”

The Hood Museum display provides ample opportunities for study of the many studies for the mural, revealing how a master artist experimented with different versions of each panel before settling on the final image. The beauty of the Dartmouth show, of course, is that visitors can take a short walk across The Green to see the completed mural cycle on site in Baker Library.

Ringing the walls of the enormous, basement-level reserve reading room in the library, the monumental mural series covers nearly 3,200 square feet. It took almost two years to complete. The catalog chapter by Jacquelyn Bass, onetime Hood Museum director, is extremely helpful in interpreting the complex imagery of the vast mural.

The huge, colorful, animated, expressive panels lining the walls are fascinating, even gripping, but their meaning many escape many who view them. Basically, as Bass explains, the cycle “presents the mythic history of the Americas up to the arrival of Cortez…[followed by] the European-influenced, modern phase…along with a mythic vision of the future…Both parts of the mural cycle contain a prophetic figure –– Quetzalcoatl in the west wing, Christ in the east wing –– linked by Cortez, the historical antihero.”

Two of the most compelling panels are the adjoining “Anglo-America” and “Hispano America.” In the former, Orozco depicted a grim New England schoolmarm, her robotic charges and “zombie-like” participants in a town meeting, backed by stark structures of the region. In the next panel Bass identifies caricatures of Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill and General John J. Pershing among a crowd of top-hatted, mask-wearing capitalists. A foreign general is about to stab a rebel leader, resembling Pancho Villa, in the back. “[T]he rebel leader’s heroic integrity,” says Bass, “contrasts sharply with the murderous, greedy figures surrounding him.” Wrecked buildings in the background reflect “the destruction wreaked by revolutionary warfare.”

The next panel, the riveting “Gods of the Modern World,” is “perhaps the best known of all the images” in the room, writes Bass. “In it,” she observes, “academicians, supposedly the guardians of the accumulated knowledge of humankind, are depicted as living corpses presiding over the stillbirth of useless knowledge while behind them the world goes up in flames.” The remarkably prescient Orozco, writes Bass, foresaw “the failure of the European academic establishment to question the rising fascism that led to World War II.”

In “Modern Migration of the Spirit,” the climax to the mural cycle, “the human spirit is dramatized as a Christ figure that rejects his sacrificial destiny by chopping down the cross and destroying the causes of his agony: militarism (represented by tanks and armaments), religion (the cross, a Buddha image, a minaret) and the authoritarian perversion of culture (a fallen Ionic column and the fragment of an Aphrodite),” Bass observes. It is some image.

These later panes, says Rub, “are nothing short of remarkable and should be acknowledged among the finest achievements of mural painting in the Twentieth Century.” The fierce clarity of Orozco’s mural cycle, undimmed to this day, testifies to his power, imagination and stirring techniques.

“It is… in the opinion of many critics, the greatest mural cycle in the United States,” Bass concludes. Visitors to Baker Library will be hard pressed to disagree.

After Orozco returned to Mexico in 1934, with his reputation firmly enhanced, he created some of his greatest mural works. They “represent the full flowering of his talent and suggest…just how important the years that Orozco spent in the United States were to his artistic development,” according to Rub.

This appealing and rewarding exhibition, showcasing the achievements of a modern Mexican titan too little known in this country, underscores Orozco’s impact on the mural movement in the United States. Along with Rivera and Sigueiros, the Mexican muralists inspired generations of Americans to create public art, from New Deal-era government-backed initiatives to lively community mural movements more recently. Congratulations are due all who organized this show and contributed to its large catalog.

That 363-page publication is chockfull of detailed essays by a multinational group of art historians. There are 250 color illustrations, many black and white photographs, a chronology and a checklist. The catalog is exceedingly well done and will make a valuable addition to the bookshelves of many art lovers. Published by the Hood Museum in association with W.W. Norton & Company, it retails for $75 (hardcover) and $45 (softcover).

The Hood Museum of Art is on Wheelock Street at the southern end of The Hanover Green in the heart of the Dartmouth College campus. For information, 603-646-2808.

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