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: Comments on the Art of José Clemente Orozco


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The memorial exhibition of the work of the late José Clemente Orozco, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and being shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through October 26th, presents important phases of the life work of an artist who, for the past quarter-century, has been generally regarded as one of the great figures of the movements often spoken as of the Mexican Renaissance. Coming at a time when artistic attention has shifted away from Mexico to post-war developments in Europe and our own country, the exhibition is not only evidence of persisting awareness of Orozco's stature, but of growing desire to explore his art more fully and to review the achievements of the extraordinary movement of which it is a part.The artistic development in Mexico which, primarily through the work of the mural painters, captured the imagination of the world in the nineteen twenties and thirties, had its roots in a splendid indigenous tradition to which the nation awakened in rebelling against an entrenched colonial system and the economic exploitation and political tyranny of the Díaz dictatorship. Orozco, who grew up in a time of great social unrest and came of age during the ten years of bitter civil war which followed the overthrow of the Díaz regime in 1911, was surrounded by the realities of violence and chaotic change which marked these crucial years of Mexico's transition from a quasi-colonial state to a nation strong enough to assert its full independence.At the close of this struggle the artists and intellectual leaders of the nation were united in the common cause of expressing the ideals of the new Mexico. They were obsessed by the need to redress deep social and political injustices, to raise the standards of economic and cultural existence of an exploited and illiterate Indian population, and to create a popular consciousness of an independent national identity.To a great extent Orozco shared or found points in common with these concerns as a basis for artistic expression and joined with the group of painters who launched the mural movement in the patios of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in 1922. His independence was such, however, that he instinctively shied away from the tendencies of the leaders of a new group to place art in the service of a social cause, and it was not long before he went his own way.Thus, organized cause, or cause for the sake of cause, never became the determining factor in his attitude as an artist. The determining factor was and remained rather the search for the meaning of man. From this approach he created a view of the world and man's place in it as comprehensive as the theological panorama of Mexican history evolved by his contemporary Diego Rivera. Whereas Rivera's system was rational and defined, creating a concrete picture of the past, present and future possibilities of life on earth as he saw them, Orozco probed into the governing conditions of human existence at a level beyond topical issues, and took as his fundamental starting point the criterion of endless change. The philosophical view which he presents is therefore arrived at empirically rather than by arbitrary premise, his conception of the past and present open to new interpretation rather than absolute, and his belief in the future dependent upon man's exercise of his free will.The elements of Orozco's independence, which go to the core of his art, are evident in his early work as a caricaturist for a newspaper published in opposition to the first leader of the Mexican revolution, Francisco Madero. Orozco has explained that little importance can be attached to the fact that he was working for an opposition newspaper. In the confusions of the civil war one could have been on almost any side. What is important as evidence of his independence, however, is the directness with which he selected and represented the most forbidding realities of that violent era. Hating hypocrisy and sham, he reacted to the excesses of a war-time society by showing man's self degradation in all its horror as though he were acting on the principle that he was thus following the most direct path for a return to truth.This early period in Orozco's work, represented in the present exhibition by a group of his most powerful watercolors and drawings, established one of the central characteristics of his art; namely, his realist approach to life and nature. Whatever may have been his instinctive tendencies in this direction, they received strong encouragement from his early experiences in Mexico City, where he moved with his family at an early age. One of these was the personality and work of the popular engraver, José Guadalupe Posada, through whose now classic illustrations of ballad sheets and penny dreadfuls, he was drawn into closer contact with the life of the people.Another was the teaching of the artist, Dr. Atl, at the Academy of San Fernando. Atl was vehement in his denunciation of Mexican artists' subservience to foreign styles and the inhibiting sense of inferiority which it carried with it. He exhorted his pupils to turn their backs on the sterile prettiness of imported French and Italian academic art and the cultural pretensions of those who supported it, drew a parallel between the imitative state of mind and the tacit acceptance of colonial status, and urged them to embrace instead the life of the nation as they found it around them. This credo was in sharp opposition to points of view of other instructors in the Academy, and Orozco's vivid sketches of street and bordello life of the time not only reflect his readiness to accept the challenge as a way to assert his nation's creative independence, but his own independence in facing, in defiance of convention, realities deeply disturbing to his own and his nation's soul. These bordello sketches, amazingly enough, carry some of the most ingratiating, indeed "pretty" qualities of color and formal gesture to be seen in the present exhibition—testimony of the unperceived influence of period sensibility on any artist, however unorthodox. But these sketches also mark the emergence of Orozco's life-long basically realist approach to nature, an approach which becomes deepened, sharpened and proportionately applicable to his increasingly far-reaching search into the nature of man and the implications of human experience.As artistic concomitant of his realist orientation to experience, Orozco was interested in structure. Perhaps most noticeable is his frequent use of geometrical abstract form, which he often introduced in quite naturalistic compositions. A picture following this approach in the present exhibition is The Cemetery; painted in 1931 but it is also found in his use of geometric principles in organizing the material of his mural works. Even in his most crowded fresco compositions where there is a profusion of overlapping, interlacing figures there is an underlying structural armature. Undoubtedly contributing to this was his early interest and training in architectural draughtsmanship. Yet Orozco transcended what could have been the limiting effect of this affinity to such an extent that his name has become almost a symbol of the passionate and spontaneous among modern artists. It was not a question of his genius seizing him and his forgetting these structural principles, but of his conscious seizing of his own genius and making it work for him in accordance with these principles. Even in his freest works, where his intuition seems alone to be responsible for the invention of his surprising forms, one finds the planned relationship of those forms. Supplementing this structural approach is his insistence upon truth to the experienced image which gives that image vitality. There are no soft lines not mannered generalizations, filling of space according to formula. His line has the sharpness and sweep of intense conviction. His form lives in the space that it occupies.Mixed with form is content, and the chief content of Orozco's art is his search for the meaning of man. Unfortunately it is impossible to grasp the full meaning of this search without seeing the artist's long series of murals in Mexico and the Unites States. Suffice it so say here that, as the Mexican scholar Justino Fernández has shown, in Orozco's art the characteristic which distinguishes man from all other creatures is conscience, which he symbolizes as fire. The symbol appears in its context in the early House of Tiles mural in Mexico City, in the fresco of Prometheus at Pomona College, and finally in its most soaring conception in the dome of the Orphanage at Guadalajara. In the course of this series of building decorations he presents the nature of man in terms his experience: his gifts at birth, his conflict with nature and finally his struggles to attain his ideals. Paralleling this account he explores man's positive and negative attributes, the noble elements of his nature and his perversities.In the course of his development the account carries through a number of stylistic changes, from the precise style of his early preparatory murals, the brilliant coloristic constructions of the Dartmouth frescos, through the sweeping baroque spirit of his murals in Guadalajara and the spectre-like expressionism of the Jesus Hospital at Mexico City to the abstract forms of his late architectural panel in the open-air auditorium of the Normal School in Mexico City.A number of pictures in the exhibition bring to light new aspects of Orozco's work. These are the huge pyroxylin panels—among them, Slave, Clown, Mask and Metaphysical Landscape—painted in the last years of the artist's life. In them one feels that Orozco has turned from the objective observation of and generalization on the nature of experience to a study of the effect of this experience on individuals and their personal psychic reactions under the duress of tragic circumstances.Clown, for example, shows a gaily dressed but distorted figure holding a wine glass away from his face with a grotesquely enlarged arm. His severe expression suggests a person under tension, indeed, by the green brush stroke concealing his eyes, almost blinded by some deep preoccupation. An armless gloved hand in a more relaxed posture appears at his side. The picture gives the impression of a tragic personal conflict in which the subject is straining by his will alone to prevent himself from drinking the poisonous contents of the glass, while the lower hand, detached from his body but perhaps signifying another part of him, invites him to take it.In Slave, another large work of the same period, a live human head, wrapped in a shroud, is bound and muzzled by a locked band of iron. Its key is locking and locked into the band, forcing the victim to bear not only the pain, blindness and degradation of his bondage but the frustration of having the means of his escape within reach but unable to free himself with it. This idea stems from the tradition of Mexican political caricature. The prototype is a lithographic cartoon published by the nineteenth-century artist Escalante in which he represented the "Freedom of the Press" by a mannikin of rolled newspapers whose lips were sealed by a huge padlock.Metaphysical Landscape, a simple picture of a bare gray landscape under a clouded sky, has been called Orozco's ultimate statement of his philosophy. At the top of the picture a large, black parallelogram interrupts the natural continuity of the sky preventing the observer from imagining what lies on the other side. Its meaning has been given as Orozco's summation of his belief that there is a limit in the universe beyond which man's probing for truth cannot go.No artist has spoken more in the terms of the Old Testament Prophets than Orozco, both in the fearlessness of his outspoken frankness and the nature of his message. As such he is an artist of "life" on the human level, reporting on the conditions and the degree of man's fulfillment of the divine legacy of his being. As he is, to repeat Justino Fernández' estimate, chiefly concerned with the nature of man and man's conscience, he is proportionately least concerned with art as a medium for reproducing sensibility or creating pure pleasure. He is interested in showing how man plays his part in the action of life and this concern gives his work a universal symbolic meaning applicable to human existence as a whole. That he was an artist, however, and not chiefly a moralist, is established by the power of imaginative suggestion of his forms. Although this quality is a function of his concern for the large issues of life, it is primarily this quality which makes his art art and gives resonance to his moral message.The Institute is proud to present this exhibition of one of the greatest artists of our era from a sister nation in the Western Hemisphere. It brings for more mature consideration evidence not only of the recent existence of a powerful creative figure in our midst and of the high achievements of modern Mexican art but of the enormous vitality of Latin traditions within contemporary American civilization.Referenced Works of Art
  1. José Clemente Orozco: Barricade, 1931. Oil on canvas. Lent by The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  2. José Clemente Orozco: Zapatistas, 1931. Oil on canvas. Lent by The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  3. Dome and pendentives of the Orphanage, Guadalajara, Mexico with Orozco fresco decorations, painted in 1938-39.
  4. Orozco: Fire. Central theme in the dome of the Guadalajara Orphanage, symbolizing man's conscience.
  5. Orozco: Clown, c. 1947. Pyroxylin on masonite.
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Source: Stanton L. Catlin, "Comments on the Art of José Clemente Orozco," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 24 (October, 1953): 118-123.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009