José Clemente Orozco, along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, is one of the triumvirate of Mexican muralists deeply influential on 20th century art. Orozco was not as fine a painter as Rivera, but there is a greater ambiguity in his work.
The Epic of American Civilization is probably his most celebrated work. It was commissioned by Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, after recommendation by two of its art historians, Artemas S Packard and Churchill P Lathrop. Painted between 1932 and 1934, it lines the basement walls of the college’s Baker library.
Comprising 20 panels, the mural retells the story of America as that of the Americas, seeing modern USA as the culmination of a centuries-long single history. Contemporary America was, for Orozco, both a celebration of modernity, and a malign, destructive force.
Orozco depicts the first pre-European culture as barbaric and primitive, engaging in human sacrifice and war. until the arrival of Quetzalcoatl. The later panels of the cycle, mirror the opening ones: so the panel ‘Ancient Human Sacrifice’ becomes ‘Modern Human Sacrifice’, suggesting that little progress has been made, merely the exchanging of one barbaric practice for another. Orozco’s pessimism and cynicism contrasted with the far more optimistic view of modernity that fellow communist Rivera held, and which can be seen in his Detroit Industry murals.
The Epic of American Civilization offended many local residents, one of whom insisted that, “Orozco has shouted forth in paint the Communist Manifesto’. A group calling themselves the ‘Boston Mothers’ wrote to college president Ernest Hopkins, demanding the murals ‘be destroyed’.
Hopkins, a lifelong Republican, and president of a deeply conservative college, nevertheless defended Orozco’s right to paint as he chose. ‘There are 100% Americans who have objected to the fact that we employed a Mexican to do this work’, Hopkins wrote to the Mothers, ‘but I have never believed that art could be made either racial or national.’ Responding to concerns that Orozco’s imagery was not ‘nice’, Hopkins wrote, ‘if that be a criterion of judgment many of the great works of the medieval masters would have to be removed from the Louvre.’
Hopkins’ defence of artisic freedom stood in contrast to that of John D Rockefeller, Jr. Diego Rivera had been commissioned to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. But when he included an image of Lenin, Rivera was fired. and the mural was destroyed.
Orozco was later to say of Darmouth college’s stance that it ‘expressed one of the most highly prized of American virtues: freedom — of speech and thought, of conscience and the press — the freedoms of which the American people have always been justifiably proud.’
There is a part of me that wonders whether a mural such as Orozco’s will survive the current fashion for taking down that which is not deemed politically acceptable. Last year the San Francisco Board of Education voted to conceal, but thankfully not destroy as it had originally decided, a series of Depression-era school murals by Victor Arnautoff which depicted the reality of the violence imposed on Native Americans and slaves that many found offensive. Even the title of Orozco’s work, The Epic of American Civilization, might seem suspect today. It seems a good moment to recall the history Orozco’s work, and of the revulsion it created, and of how a conservative college and president refused to bow to demands to censor a self-avowed communist.
My god. Powerful stuff. This take down culture is being weaponised to cleanse a bloody history. Keep the statues up but say who they are and what they did.
I have been studying the profound influence of these three Mexican muralists on the art of the black artist, Charles White (of course they also had an equally deep impact on his first wife, Elizabeth Catlett). Both White and Catlett eventually went to Mexico to study and learn from Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros (los tres grandes). The complex intertwining of a “social realist” aesthetic (one open to ‘modernist’ aesthetic experimentation) with a Leftist worldview and politics has not, I think, been sufficiently appreciated among artists like White and Catlett.
That’s fascinating. Has anything been written on this?
Yes, I’ll send along some titles shortly (in two of the best books on White’s art, it is discussed but there a some other works that go into more detail).
What immediately follows is from a long interview with White that can be found online (at least a couple of years ago).
CHARLES WHITE: Yeah, I was painting. By this time I had become a member of the ACA Gallery, I had a one-man show in New York and—
BETTY L. HOAG: I’m sorry, I don’t know what an ACA is.
CHARLES WHITE: Well, it’s called the ACA Gallery, I think it stands for “American Contemporary Art.” It’s known by its initials rather than its full name. So, my paintings had begun to sell very well, and because my wife had a fellowship we were able to live relatively well. And I went to school at the Mexican Government School of Mexico called Escuela de Pientura y Scultura, which it means “School of Painting and Sculpture.” And it’s known as “The Esmaralda”, because that is the name of the street it is on; that’s not really the name of the school, but everybody calls it by that name.
BETTY L. HOAG: Is that the same as the Talier de Graphica?
CHARLES WHITE: No, that was the Graphics Workshop where all the artists who worked in medias of lithography arid woodcuts were either members or did their work. There was quite a famous group there, and I both studied there and became a member of the Tallera.
BETTY L. HOAG: Now is that where you knew Leopolda Mendez? And Siqueiros?
CHARLES WHITE: Yeah, I lived with Siqueiras for about a year in the same house. He owned a big house and he let us have a place. And Pablo Higgens worked at the Talier and Orozco did some prints there as well as Diego Rivera.
BETTY L. HOAG: Do you think the Mexican work influenced your own?
CHARLES WHITE: It had a tremendous influence on me. I guess the two things that in my earlier life that had the most influence was both studying with Harry Sternberg, who was a great teacher and opened my eyes for the first time opened my eyes to my feelings that I had never been able to quite pin down to the kind of work that I was doing. He brought it out, so to speak. And Harry was the most important teacher I ever had, as well as the experience of Mexico itself, because of the nature of the kind of stuff I was doing, was more geared to “social realism” in quotes. I found that I found people in Mexico who were also dealing with the same kind of approach (in terms of content) that was just my mental experience.
White also said, in 1950, “Mexico was a milestone … I saw artists working to create an art about and for the people…. It clarified the direction I wanted to move.”
See, for example:
• Barnwell, Andrea D. Charles White. San Francisco, CA: Pomegranate Press, 2002.
• Lefalle-Collins, Lizetta and Shifra M. Goldman. In the Spirit of Resistance: African-American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1996.
• Morgan, Stacy I. Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
• Oehler, Sarah Kelly and Esther Adler, eds. Charles White: A Retrospective. Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Museum of Modern Art/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.
• Washington, Mary Helen. The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
It is also briefly discussed in Andrew Hemingway’s Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
This is what I’ve come across to date.
Thank you. That’s really useful.
Incidentally, the above list of books is taken from this bibliography: https://www.academia.edu/29299934/Marxism_Art_and_Aesthetics_A_Select_Bibliography