“Before a great artist, Jorge González Camarena was a simple man. He never sought fame and would rather enjoy sitting on a brick and eating with a bricklayer. He found the company of humble people more honest and authentic.” says the eldest grandson of Camarena, Marcel.
Born in 1908, Gonzalez Camarena was a Mexican painter, muralist, and sculptor. He was a major figure in the Mexican muralism movement and belonged to the second generation of Mexican muralist artists. He was heavily inclined toward the exultant analogies of history and it can be observed through the tone of his paintings. Although he’s an important part of the Mexican muralism movement, his work was different from other artists during the same era. Mostly distinct from the three most famous names of the time: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Siqueiros. Unlike these artists, Jorge dealt with topics related to the Mexican Revolution, rescuing the past of Mexico, or the struggles for social equality. And he was sure criticized by many people for that.
The artist honored with The Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy, Jorge González Camarena, was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, into an artistic and cultural family. As a child, Camarena was attracted to art since his father was a photographer. He would carve pebbles to give them shapes, mold and bake clay into forms he wanted, and draw comic strips with characters of his imagination (the Chiquinitos) which he then sold to his classmates. At the age of 14, his family moved to Mexico City. His then elementary school painting teacher Francisco Zenteno recognized his love for art and advised him to enter the Academy of San Carlos. That is where Camarena’s journey as an artist began.
At the Academy of San Carlos, Jorge became the assistant to Dr. Atl, who later became one of his mentors until his last day. The timeline of Jorge González Camarena is not just his journey but an inspiration to artists worldwide. In 1929 when he was still a student, at 21, he was writing and drawing for publications. A few of his great works from this time include Revista de Revistas (Journal of Magazines) and Nuestro Mexico (Our Mexico).
During the same time, he conducted his first research on pre-Hispanic and popular art while working on the Huejotzingo restoration project. It was a 16th-century Frescoes of The Convent of Huejotzingo and he lived there for two years. His research work was published later in Revista Futuro. This helped Camarena develop his guide for the composition of his works henceforth. He called it “Quadratism” (Harmonic geometry) since the composition involved using geometric techniques in the pictorial organization.
“His faith in geometry and form, that is, in space and matter, make him a constructor, a builder of plane and mass” – Mauricio Gomez Mayorga.
Camarena used natural pigments to create his paintings. He dedicated almost his entire life to easel painting and throughout his life, he made more than 2000 pieces. He started distinguishing his work from the rest of the artists of the same era in the early stages of his life by defining his work with the use of clear lines and textures. His work displayed numerous styles and techniques: including surrealism, cubism to Magical realism.
Jorge Camarena painted his first mural at the Fundacion Hotel, Zimapan, called Allegany of Zimapan. In 1942 he produced one of his best works known as the Diptych of Life. Painted in the Guardiola building, this mural forms the annex of the Bank of Mexico. It depicted the theme of life by displaying a male and a female made as the “owners of the cosmic force that breathes humanity” (described by the artist himself). The artwork became a topic of controversy and eventually, the mural was destroyed during an earthquake causing the building to collapse in 1957.
The National Institute of Fine Arts later decided to paint a mural in the Palace of Fine Arts in response to the destruction and controversy. It was named “Liberation” with the idea of “Humanity is freed from Misery.” The mural was completed in 1963 and it comprises a plastic interpretation of the history of Mexico. The mural depicts that a human can only be freed from his bonds with the help of knowledge.
By this time, Jorge’s ideologies had begun to shift toward the social and political themes of the country. He produced most of his paintings around these themes. His art throughout his life represents how deeply he was committed to the cultural legacy of Mexico and the impacts of his works are still evident.
When he painted La Vida Y La Industria in 1949, he included common elements of Mexican muralism representing the preparation of beer in a Mesoamerican scene. This became one of his most famous works across the world. Jorge believed that while interpreting Mexican history both the country’s indigenous and Spanish cultural backgrounds should not be denigrated. He also wanted to honor the Mexican Revolution by working towards its social justice. He was not one of the artists who offered skeptical versions of the failure of the ideologies of the country. He believed in compositional methods based on geometry, ornate drawings, and earthy textures. His art derived from everyday, civil and philosophical themes, and he was an artist who was more interested in propagation and preservation.
Apart from art and drawing, the artist was also passionate about music and joined the village orchestra where he began to study magical thinking and the traditions of ancient Mexicans. Over a while, he developed an interest in archaeology, technology, and post-revolutionary nationalistic aesthetics which were visible through his works.
Apart from these, Jorge González Camarena was also the author of works like La Erupcion Del Xitle – a mural made with oil wax located in the museum of the archaeological zone in Cuicuilco. The Polychrome Bas-relief in stone, the exterior wall of the Instituto Tecnologico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, made with mosaic and rubber paint which today is the symbol of the school. It represents the triumph of culture and civilization over indifference, darkness, and downdraft. Cristo En la Cruz – The face of Christ, was designed with indigenous characteristics where the Mesoamerican deities were depicted in the same way as that of ancient Greek Gods.
In the last years of his life, Camarena developed one of his most famous works, Las Razas, the acrylic mural at the National Museum of anthropology. It was used in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Discovery of America in 1992 as a postage stamp. The painting consists of images of four women: Asian, American, African, and European.
Camarena’s contribution to Mexican history does not conclude with just his murals, paintings, and sculptures. He also promoted the conservation of old buildings and the restoration of colonial monuments which made him an essential part of Mexico’s history.
In 1962, he produced his best-known work – La Patria – the piece he proposed to the National Commission of free Textbooks. The covers of all primary school study materials were decided to be unified using a single image for the covers. Camarena painted a woman of a dark complexion with indigenous features covered in a white tunic to represent the homeland. She was accompanied by the eagle and the snake, the national flag, a book, and different elements representing the homeland, its culture, and the industry. This illustration made the cover of more than 350 book titles and made a total of 523 million copies between the years 1962-1970 (including the materials for both students and teachers).
Jorge also helped with the salvation of the Fort of San Juan De Ulua, Veracruz. In 1953, the fort was supposed to be demolished to build warehouses and a pier in its place. But with great cultural awareness, Camarena founded the committee for the Defense and restoration of the castle and managed to save the National Heritage.
The ‘National artist’ like Jorge Camarena had only five paintings in his collection. The artist was so famous that buyers bought him blank canvases regardless of what he would paint on them. They would later buy the painting from him whenever they were completed. In the last year of his life, Camarena produced about 50 paintings, and according to him, they were the “most representative” of his works. A few of his last paintings were distributed among his family members as mentioned in his will.
Most of Camarena’s easel works are in private collections in both homeland and foreign countries. His mural works are said to have crossed borders. They have now become the symbols of plenty of institutions and historical events.
An artist who lived his life dedicated to his country, Camarena described his time in Mexico as the time he had to live with ‘deep national commitment’ while receiving the National Arts Award in 1971. Jorge González Camarena passed away in 1980 of a brain hemorrhage but he still lives in people’s hearts through his art.
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