“All aesthetics, of whatever kind, are a movement forward, not backward. An artwork is never negative. By the very fact of being an artwork, it is constructive.” An excerpt from the renowned José Clemente Orozco’s words goes beyond establishing him as more than just an artist.
As a leading muralist, caricaturist, and painter of the second half of the 20th century in Mexico, Orozco played a pivotal role in openly criticizing the social and political stance during the Mexican Revolution and the post-Revolution government. Born in 1883, he first developed an interest in art in 1890, influenced by the political cartoons of José Guadalupe Posada, Mexico’s first great printmaker. Owing to the amputation of his left arm due to an incident with manipulated fireworks in 1904, Orozco wholly committed himself to pursuing his artistic capabilities. He went on to attend the San Carlos Academy to pursue art and painting, after which he worked with various newspapers as a caricaturist.
Early life | José Clemente Orozco
José Clemente Orozco has credited his teacher, Gerardo Murillo, through the span of his career for urging all his students to cultivate Mexican traits over the widespread European cultural domination, leading to his iconic work as a creator.
Since the early years of his career as a caricaturist, Orozco consciously began exploring Mexican themes surrounding daily life, eventually elevating himself as a satiric artist on the revolutionary paper La Vanguardia during the civil war in 1914. As an artist influenced by symbolism, he was also a genre painter and lithographer.
Often adopting a highly expressionistic form of social realism, his style was a blend of conventional, Renaissance-period composition and modeling. Emotionally expressive, his modernist abstractions were typically dark, with ominous palettes, forms, and iconography deriving from indigenous, pre-colonial, pre-European art. Architecture, in his perspective, was a powerful image of human narratives and history. His murals adorn the walls of buildings, and his prints depict buildings to utilize this imagery.
Between 1922 and 1926, Orozco and his avant-garde colleagues Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros initiated the Mexican muralist movement with their murals. They later became known as the Los Tres Grandes or the Big Three for their revolutionary work. Even until the late 1920s, he remained underappreciated in his country despite the praises from the small intellectual elites.
In 1930, after his move to the United States, he was commissioned to paint a fresco mural in the refectory of Pomona College in Claremont, for which he chose a monumental Prometheus reaching up to the sky to take fire, a symbol of wisdom and enlightenment. This massive-scale art became the first modern fresco in the country, followed by the famous 24-panel, Epic of American Civilization mural at Dartmouth College inspired by the Byzantine mosaics of Rome and Ravenna, both of which stands celebrated even today. Here, in the US, he befriended the journalist and arts patron Alma Reed, who later became his agent and helped widely exhibit and construct an international reputation.
“The mural is the highest, most rational, purest, and most powerful form of painting,” José Clemente Orozco believed. “It is also the most disinterested form since it can neither be turned into a source of private profit nor hidden for the enjoyment of a privileged few. It is for the people. For everybody.”
Orozco returned to Mexico as a well-respected artist. He worked on his masterpiece, the Man of Fire mural, at the Hospicio Cabanas in Guadalajara between 1938-39. Regarded as the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas,” the 19th-century hostel hosts his most extensive work and serves as a UNESCO World Heritage site today.
Honored with the National Prize in 1946, he went on to illustrate Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck’s book, The Pearl, in the following year. Recognized as a Mexican national hero by this time, the taciturn, creative genius died at 65 years of age in 1949 due to heart failure in his sleep.
Recognition after Death | José Clemente Orozco
Today, the legendary José Clemente Orozco’s work remains exhibited in prestigious places such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City. His work has also been put up for auction on multiple instances. Generally, with realized prices from 102 USD to 1,142,500 USD, depending on the size and medium of the artwork, his art remains relevant even today.
Laurie Coyle, one of the directors of the film Orozco: Man of Fire, 2007, shares his insights on how the celebrated artist revived the fresco tradition with modernist sensibility and deconstructivism. A man with great tenacity and unshakeable faith in his mission, interestingly, Orozco hadn’t painted his first mural until he was 40 years old. He had used art as a weapon in struggles against injustice, and thus they never went out of style. José Clemente Orozco has inspired many famous figures such as the Mexican painter, sculptor, and poet Gustavo Arias Murueta, the renowned Joan Mitchell, and Eleanor Coen. With his bold legacy, he continues to inspire many more, even today.
Citations for websites:
José Clemente Orozco | Mexican painter | Britannica. (2019). In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jose-Clemente-Orozco.
The Art Institute of Chicago. (n.d.). José Clemente Orozco. [online] Available at: https://www.artic.edu/artists/36095/jose-clemente-orozco.
Sothebys.com. (2014). José Clemente Orozco. [online] Available at: https://www.sothebys.com/en/artists/jose-clemente-orozco [Accessed 22 Oct. 2022].
The Art Story. (n.d.). José Clemente Orozco Paintings, Bio, Ideas. [online] Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/orozco-jose-clemente/#pnt_5 [Accessed 22 Oct. 2022].
Pbs.org. (2019). American Masters . José Clemente Orozco . Filmmaker Interview | PBS. [online] Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/orozco_j_interview_en.html.
blog.bridgemanimages.com. (n.d.). The Works of José Clemente Orozco – bridgeman blog. [online] Available at: https://blog.bridgemanimages.com/blog/the-works-of-jose-clemente-orozco [Accessed 23 Oct. 2022].