JOSE CLEMENTE OROZCO was already an internationally celebrated artist at the top of his form and had already completed his murals entitled The Epic of American Civilization in Baker Library when I was beginning work on my first mural for the Federal Art Project. My generation had entered art school with dreams of graduate study in Paris; but four years later, if the Great Depression had not intervened, 'we would have gone to Mexico. Not only Orozco, but also Rivera and Siquieros, were known to us; but Orozco, the artistic liberator, the apolitical critic and satirist of stupidity and violence (whether from the extreme left or the extreme right) , conformed to our image of the artist as the guardian of the individual and his rights. How strange it was to us that American capitalists (among whom were the Rockefellers and the Fords) would give the most prized mural commissions to an. admitted member of the Communist Party, Diego Rivera.
Artistically we admired Orozco's ability to invest his figures with tremendous emotion and anatomical volume by means of his non-academic treatment of the human figure. His use of perspective like-wise was unorthodox, and bent to strengthen the pictorial structure; his color sense freed us from the constrains of academic color-wheel systems and theories.
The critics and historians of those days made more of Rivera, much to the bewilderment of most artists. Rivera is still rather superficial to me today, and Orozco Continues to puzzle critics and historians in much the same way that he puzzled his contemporaries. All of the writers of that period With Whom I am familiar talk about Orozco the enigmatic, the paradoxical; and some claim that he had difficulty in, or was diffident about, explaining his own work.
I have chosen panel number ten in The Epic of American Civilization , 'Anglo-America,' as a good example of a work that has received a variety of assessments and interpretations. It also presents us with an opportunity to examine a Mexican's artistic statement about rural America, and an opportunity to examine comments about that Mexican statement by Mexican critics who express extraordinary views of Orozco's statement, and of us.
For example, Justino Fernandez, in his critical work on Orozco, demonstrates how one may avoid definitive comments about a difficult work by making only a passing reference to panel number ten in the midst of a running commentary on the preceding and following panels, numbers nine and eleven. My translation starts with his last thoughts on panel number eight, a slight reference to panel number nine, and then a hasty pass through number ten (seven words), and finally to the opening statement on panel number eleven:
The is the truly solemn moment that one feels in this scene, the sense of respect and steadfastness that the artist wished to give to those two positive symbols [the sword of Cortez and the cross] of the new American world. Because after these cultural symbols will come those of a civilization that Orozco will unmask the pile of machinery, the chains, the sense of a gregarious Anglo-Saxon-American world, and the sense of that Hispano-American individual; the latter surrounded by exploiters and enemies. 1
Apparently Justino Fernandez hoped that his inability to read Orozco's intentions in this panel would get lost in the fast shuffle to the Hispano-American individual.
I have before me Orozco: Pintura Mural. It is a large, coffee-table book, thoroughly illustrated and well written. From it I quote Jorge Alberto Manrique, who also slides by panel number ten by opening his explanatory paragraph as follows (my translation):
But once again man falls, excessive mechanization, dehumanization, portrayed by Orozco in a combination of metals and chains in which man is absent. Two panels follow to the right of that wall: Anglo-America, an excessively ordered and disciplined world, in which the dominant and perhaps saving figure is the school teacher, and Hispanoamerica (panel number eleven), a world in absolute contrast to the aforementioned, given order to chaos and disorder, where the rich and the military rob and accumulate money, foreign interests conspire and assassinate: the scene is dominated by a figure that might also be a savior, 'the rebel,' a new hero with cartridge belt, rifle, and a wide sombrero, who is often confused with Zapata, since there is a certain likeness. 2
Finally, this strange comment by Antonio Rodriguez in La pintura mural en la obra de Orozco:
In a panel of the series [on the east wall, beginning with the panel of Cortez] as if to justify several questions raised by symbols in the previous Panels, he presents a stiffly erect schoolmarm, rigid, insensitive, who seems to be passive, idiotic -- for a mechanized society without soul without men, to which the previous panel of tubes and cylinders alludes.
The panel that follows depicts a Latin America which is symbolized by a revolutionist [Zapata] whom a bemedalled general is about to knife: rather, whom he is in the act of stabbing. 3
The above comments by three Hispanic critics, one of whom, Justine Fernandez, was a very close friend of Orozco's, make me wonder how much of the view of Anglo-America as a regimented robotic society was shared by the artist. Another writer, Luis Cardoza y Aragon, quotes Orozco as follows: 'Consequently, to write a story and say that it is truthfully what a painting says is an error and false. Now, the organic idea of all paintings, even the worst in the world, is extremely obvious to the average spectator with average intelligence and eyesight. The artist cannot hide it. It might be a poor, superfluous and ridiculous idea, or great and meaningful.' 4
So let us examine panel number ten, 'Anglo-America,' as average spectators with average intelligence and discover what it is that we see. Beginning at the top left there are two red barns and at the top right a white building. Neither the barns nor the white building are architecturally exclusive to the local area. The latter structure is typical of rural meeting houses that also served as churches and schools; the bell tower is of the schoolhouse genre, and the tall windows relate to church architecture.
The composition is dominated by a giant (ten feet tall?) grim-faced woman who is wearing a long-sleeved, blue-stained dress that reaches slightly below the calves of her legs. She wears white stockings and single-strap, black, cuban-heeled shoes. Her hands are strong and work-hardened; the left hand hangs loosely at her side but is not relaxed. It is semi-clenched. The right arm is stretched out from her body and her hand is clutching a thick book, which she supports against her thigh. The book has a black binding and the leaves are edged in red. Anyone who was raised in a rural, predominantly white and Protestant, community in the thirties must recognize this book; it is the Protestant Bible.
The woman is partially surrounded by a group of about fifteen children of indeterminate age, perhaps ranging from five to nine. There is an oblong of golden wheat at the lower left that is about one-third the height of the panel and less than a third wide. The child in profile, standing back to the oblong of wheat, is slightly taller than the surrounding wheat and about the same height as the rest of the children. None of the children would be any taller than the mid-thigh of the woman.
Not only are the ages of the children in question, but it is also difficult to determine genders. At least two look like boys, but all the children are wearing dresses and girls' shoes. And I must admit it would be a kindness to say that they look like slow learners, which gives Antonio Rodriquez's aforementioned comments about them some credibility.
The rest of the panel (the area above the oblong of wheat and the children, and to the right of the woman [our left]) is taken up with a very large group of men and women who are facing each other across an invisible rectangular abyss. It is as if we were viewing a graveside funeral service from too far behind the mourners to see the grave.
Above the wheat and the heads of the children, the mourners are men. They are wearing felt snap-brim hats typical of the thirties. If the heads are supposed to be bowed in prayer, the drawing of the heads and the hats lacks conviction.
Along the length of the grave, opposite the felt-hatted men, two young women, dressed in white robes, could be members of a church choir. Two bare-faced young men to their left, wearing stiff collars, ties, vests, and suit jackets, could be ministers. The large crowd behind them fills all the area up to the barns and the meeting house. There are the essential elements in the panel.
Now let us 'read' Mr. Orozco's idea of Anglo-America. First, the dominant figure whom our Mexican observers have labeled a schoolmarm. From my point of view, the red-edged Bible in her right hand makes her a Sunday-school teacher, and her work-hardened hands, her ungainly stance, the stiffness of her shoulders, betray a farm wife who probably, along with other members of the church, teaches a Sunday-school class. Because Orozco made her tall enough for her head to cover the first two tall windows along the side of the church, I choose to think that he used this design strategem to associate her with that building, and thus the Bible in her hand functions as a supporting symbol that identifies her in her role as a Sunday-school teacher.
Now, as we recognize the 'dominant' woman as Sunday-school teacher with her students, the whole panel makes more sense; the children are beginning their lives, and to Orozco Protestant religious instruction must have appeared to be central to primary-school education in Anglo-America. The barns on the left do more than just set a rural scene for the panel; they symbolize the work ethic. The congregation at the grave site shows us people of all ages. They consist of previous generations and signify all the stages of life that the children will experience through the coming years.
The wheatfield as symbol is also ambiguous; it represents growth and maturity and harvest (death?). Whether or not Orozco intended it so, it is very fitting that he placed a child, in profile, as if she were emerging from the wheatfield, as if 'in her beginning is her ending.' Thus the panel takes on the allegory of the cycle of life; not a new theme in the history of art.
I think I can best respond to the statements of the Mexican critics by discussing Orozco's problems with the subject matter and his attendant difficulties with the drawing and the painting in this panel. Most of the puzzling reaction by the above critics is due to two factors: one, their unfamiliarity with Anglo-America, which was almost equal to Orozco's; and two, their unfamiliarity with the strange ways an artist's skill deserts him when he tries to interpret an alien culture.
Compared with the other panels, number ten is the clumsiest and most inept; it is also the most inept of all his other work with which I am familiar. Any one of us who struggled through beginners' portrait class in art school will recognize our early struggles in that hacked-out, wooden-faced schoolteacher. As for the children, I suffer along with Orozco when I see how difficult it was for him to shape and paint a childlike Anglo-Saxon face whose bone structure and flesh color did not present the guidelines found in Mexican and mestizo faces of all ages. He did much better with the background adults, because the scale is much smaller and more conducive to the impressionistic touch. Still, the best faces in that throng look slightly Mexican. All in all, he did his best and hoped that a few judicious outlines, a quick brush stroke here and there, could save the day. Unfortunately a fresco is painted on wet plaster, so he did not have the luxury of almost unlimited time to work his way out of the dilemma.
He could have taken the easy way out by using his mastery over caricature, as he did so successfully in the faces of the capitalists, the naval officers, and the diplomats in panel number eleven. That he did not is a measure of his attempt to be dispassionate and also a measure of his artistic integrity. He preferred to fail rather than to poke fun.
If we turn our gaze to the Cortez panel, we see that the Sunday school teacher is turned in the same direction as Cortez, toward our left, and the pose is similarly a three-fourths view. The two figures are fairly equal in height, and if they were to stand side by side, we would be struck by the juxtaposition of sword (Cortez) and Bible (Sunday school teacher). Note also the friar and the cross to Cortez's right, and compare this to the Bible in the teacher's hand as a variation of that theme -- and the rigidity of her pose as a substitute for naked steel. This may be accidental, but I think Orozco may have intended these similarities to highlight the contrast between Spanish-Catholic conquest and conversion and Anglo-American religious influence on citizen behavior. Observe how Cortez's left arm is almost gently hovering over his fallen and captive foes in a paternalistic gesture, while the teacher stands in stoic remove, coldly ignoring her charges.
As to the perceptions of the above-quoted critics that Anglo-Americans are 'gregarious' in comparison with Hispanics who are individuals, we should look at certain sociopolitical and historical conditions that shaped Spanish and Hispanic understanding of the meanings of the two words.
Long before Spain freed herself from the Moors, Christian Spain lived under a political system that used the harshest of secular and religious pressure, through the crown and the church, to shape an historically anarchic people (the Celtic-Iberians) into a `gregarious' (collective, unseamed) religious orderliness.
I think that Latin America's history of almost unabated revolutions and political violence since 1810 adds a dimension to the word 'individual' that is beyond our understanding of that word. Perhaps in a two-class society, such as prerevolutionary Latin America, the 'individualist' separates himself from the constraints of caste by becoming a 'revolutionist' who foments chaos and disorder. So, logically, the critics see the Hispanic individual surrounded by 'exploiters' and 'enemies' (Fernandez), and 'chaos and disorder' (Manrique). Hence a society, such as the one illustrated in 'Anglo-America,' must be by contrast one of 'passive idiots,' and the heroic-sized woman must be a molder of 'passive idiots' (Rodriquez).
However, I must quote from Modern Mexican Painters, by MacKinley Helm: 'Northern civilization is eventually characterized, however, not by an industrial panopticon but by a set piece containing rows of stupid-looking farm-bred people at a town meeting.' 5
I deduce from his remarks that Mr. Helm, the historical writer, did not know much about the painter's craft and thus misread what the painting says about itself. Throughout his book, which is largely a report of a lengthy stay in Mexico, he quotes very generously from the major artists he interviewed, and the judgment cited above is consistent with what he heard from Mexican artists and critics. From my impression of Mr. Helm's descriptions of the murals and Baker's Reserve Corridor ( '. . . a dusky catacomb into which only the hardiest of the faithful can bear to descend from the upholstered elegance of Georgian halls'),6 I am driven to conclude that Mr. Helm may never have visited the murals. I wonder how much of the critical writing on Orozco's work was based on color reproductions, or even rather poor black-and-white reproductions in second-rate publications.
As for 'rows of stupid-looking farm-bred people at a town meeting,' Mr. Helm, in less than a dozen words, discloses how much he does not know of the painting process and its attendant pitfalls, his elitist prejudices, his ignorance about town government, and his unfamiliarity with rural burial services. I don't think he got these ideas from Mr. Orozco.
Finally, I think the main idea behind panel ten is very powerful, and in spite of Orozco's flawed understanding of us, it is one of his most moving paintings. The sincerity behind this effort raises it to heights not equalled by many of his more dramatic works. The more I study it, the more I admire it.
1. Justino Fernandez, Orozco, forma e idea, 2d ed. (Mexico: Porrua, 1956), 64-65.
2. Jose Clemente Orozco, Orozco, pintura mural/ los murales de Orozco, ed. Jorge Alberto Manrique (Mexico,. D.F.: Fonda Editorial de la Plastica Mexicana, 1989), 25-26.
3. Antonio Rodriguez, La pintura mural en la obra de Orozco (Mexico City: Cultura SEP 1983), 62.
4. Luis Cardoza y Aragon, Orozco (Mexico:Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1983), 47. This letter also appears in Jose Clemente Orozro, Textos de Orozco:estudio y apendice, 2d ed. (Mexico:Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1983), 53.
5. MacKinley Helm, Modern Mexican Painters (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), 76.
6. Helm, Modern Mexican Painters, 77.
Last Updated: 4/19/17