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.