Jose Clemente Orozco, master muralist, shines in an overwhelming exhibit in Mexico


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The Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) is the subject of an immense and exhausting survey up now at a downtown Mexico City museum, the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. A total of 358 pieces fill more than a dozen exhibit halls, including previously unexhibited drawings of studies for some of Orozco’s most famous murals.

‘Jose Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad’ opened in September to coincide with last year’s bicentennial celebrations. Its run has been extended through the end of February. The viewing experience requires hours. The show’s setting is also significant.


Orozco painted some of his lesser-known but most politically charged fresco murals along the arched corridors of the colonial-era college, founded by Jesuits in 1588, just 60 years after the fall of the Aztecs. The frescoes depict snooty members of Mexico’s elite and scenes of violent warfare from the country’s revolution a century ago. In one mural, in the main stairwell, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez is shown sitting nude alongside La Malinche, his Indian interpreter and mistress. A faceless mixed-race man lies in the shadows beneath them -- offering a less-than-ringing endorsement of the fruits of the conquest.

For Mexicans who know their history and the ‘great’ artists of the 20th century, this is familiar stuff. But for visitors and foreigners, ‘Jose Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad’ offers a surprisingly straightforward introduction to the expressive range of a master who remains controversial to this day.

Orozco was an activist painter and a member of an elite himself: the crowd of Marxist bohemians and, later, political-cultural establishment in Mexico that was led partly by his contemporaries, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera.

As the exhibit demonstrates, Orozco was deeply commited to the causes in vogue in his day. But he was also skeptical. For Orozco, the revolution was ‘farce, drama, barbarity, buffoons and dwarfs trailing along after the gentlemen of noose and dagger.’ We see this disdain throughout the exhibit, particularly in his visceral ink drawings, some of which could be ripped from our contemporary headlines with titles like ‘Cruelty’ (seen above), ‘Hanging Man,’ and ‘Indifference.’

For the opposition newspaper El Ahuizote, Orozco produced scathing political cartoons targeting just about every stripe of power broker. One, seen below, shows major politicians dressed in drag, with only a saintly nun, representing the nation or homeland, offering a moral contrast.

‘Jose Clemente Orozco: Pintura y Verdad’ originated at the Instituto Cultural Cabañas in the western city of Guadalajara, where it was organized by curator Miguel Cervantes. That’s where Orozco’s masterpiece the ‘Man of Fire’ fresco is located. The San Ildefonso mounting made me wish I had seen this show back in Jalisco.

In the Mexico City setting, the exhibit falters in connecting the experience of viewing the fresco murals at San Ildefonso with the drawings, paintings, and portraits in the exhibit halls. Furthermore, the reproductions of the murals that Orozco created elsewhere, including at Pomona and Dartmouth colleges in the United States, are small, placed close to the floor, and difficult to absorb in the dim gallery lighting.


The reproductions were ‘printed in that size so that the public could get a general idea of the compositions and read texts on the genesis of each [mural],’ Cervantes explained, in an e-mail message.

In any case, the range and quality of Orozco’s works as shown here outweigh any potential faults. There are often surprising pieces, in many styles and genres. And they are presented in a clear, chronological fashion, devoid of florid curatorial arguments or historical revisionism.

For readers in Mexico City, Gregorio Luke, the former director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., will narrate a presentation featuring to-scale projections of famous Orozco murals on Feb. 2 at 6 p.m. The event is free but space is limited.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Top photo: ‘ La Trinchera,’ 1926, fresco / Courtesy of the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. Second photo: ‘Crueldad,’ 1926-1928, ink on paper / Courtesy Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. Third photo: ‘El Ahuizote,’ Nov. 25, 1911 / Photo by Daniel Hernandez. Bottom photo: ‘Riña en un Cabaret,’ 1944, oil on masonite / Photo by Daniel Hernandez