Jose Clemente Orozco

I’ve been spending a little time far south of the border in a land of mariachi bands, fake designer goods, Zapatistas and a host of dead revolutionaries.

In Guadalajara their memories never die. Great looming monuments dominate city blocks and government buildings, and museums enshrine Miguel Hidalgo, Poncho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and the artists who immortalized them. It’s impossible not to compare the enduring patriotism in Mexico with the United States when it’s coming at you from all sides – and when art, specifically, has played such a role in Mexico’s revolutions.

Muralist Jose Clemente Orozco stands alongside statues of Hildago and other statesmen in the Rotonda de los Heroes Ilustres in central Guadalajara. Poet Enrique González Martinez and several priests are also household names here. Oddly, separation of church, state and culture is neither as severe nor as delineated as the U.S., in spite of their Marxist-driven independence battles and revolution.

Of the famed Mexican Social-Realist muralists whose works are practically idolized here, José Clemente Orozco is the most complex and contemplative. Compatriots David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera were both hard core and unswerving Marxist-Stalinists their entire lives, using art flagrantly and militantly as political propaganda. Orozco was publically supportive of the philosophy but personally reserved in its praise. He was also suspicious and critical of extreme ideologies and political movements.

Orozco’s murals, such as “The Trench,” illustrated the treachery and destruction he witnessed in the 1910-1920, Marxist-tinged revolution.

David Craven writes that the “emotional register … [of ‘The Trench’] is almost unattained by any other twentieth century artist.”

Orozco ‘s bloody shadows, strong contrasts and diagonal movement make you feel off-balance at times. He used machinery to symbolize militaristic greed and violence even in the People’s Revolution, while Rivera and Siqueiros, leftist to the core, tolerated no criticism of revolutionary misdeeds in their work.

Mexico’s George Washington, Miguel Hidalgo, is honored by Orozco with an enormous, reverential mural winding up the walls of Governor’s Palace here. He portrays the founder of Mexican Independence with great dignity, although heaps of bodies surrounding him attest to the tragic cost of the effort.

Hidalgo mural by Orozco

Beneath the towering Hidalgo, a telling assortment of actors tell a more complete story of Mexico’s revolutions and Orozco’s mixed feelings about them. Anarchists and Marxists with nasty expressions (evidenced by red-hats, hammers and sickles) simultaneously sport swastikas or weapons. Revolutionary crowds are confused and hideous with torn loyalties and self-interest, rife with genocidal infighting. Orozco spared no one and no pet group escaped his critical eye.

Jesus and sundry priests regularly appear in Orozco’s work, but he shows surprising respect and restraint for a “Marxist” painter. Priests may accompany Conquistadors, but Orozco was hardly a sloganeering reactionary, using the cross only as a symbol of oppression.

Guadalajara’s grand Hospicio Cabañas, originally built by the church to house orphans and the poor is now the background for Orozco’s greatest mural works. Remaining true to the spirit of the place, the artist sympathetically portrays founder Bishop Juan Ruiz de Cabañas as a sheltering, great and kind-hearted man of the people in the monumental series of paintings (1937-1939).

Christ-like, almost unearthly Franciscan monks also populate Orozco’s work at the Governors’ Palace and elsewhere. These are among his most powerful and moving images. Orozco’s sympathy for the suffering and poor was his major theme and personal interest. He resisted his contemporaries’ pressure to politicize misery and reaped some scorn and professional rejection because of it.

Since Orozco’s death the situation has reversed, with critics acknowledging him as Mexico’s greatest artist but one rift with conflicts. Orozco’s paintings war with each other, some even on the same wall. A modern and hopeful allegory morphs into another, which graphically records the brutality of the Revolution.

Writer Thomas Sowell offers what may lay behind Orozco’s dilemma. He divides the world’s philosophies and religions into two camps, tragic and utopian. In the first humans are flawed, weak and inherently selfish, hardly captains of their own ship. By contrast utopians think everything can be fixed, even human nature and sin, generally by education and social agreements – classical liberalism. Orozco was torn between the promised Marxist paradise his peers fought for and tragedies he personally observed and couldn’t honestly deny.

Bishop Cabanas mural by Orozco

Three times he painted a masculine, husky and resurrected Christ destroying His cross among his murals. This “cross” is a massive marble one, fallen on a heap of official-looking buildings and wreckage, symbols of institutions, governments and what Jesus labeled “the world.”

Sweeping in from the left, a mass of fire devours icons of ideologies and oppression. Orozco’s “Christ” is a powerful emancipator who is allied to the people and won’t play dead. This is a truly revolutionary image.

By contrast, American artists rarely deal with truly epic themes now or over the last 60 years. Struggles against clearly delineated good and evil are passé and left for more trivial and entertaining subjects. Who wants to think that hard anyway, not to mention the possibility of alienating or offending someone?

Contemporary artists who use the terminology “good” and “evil” – such as Gloria Garfinkle’s show a few years back – generally require reams of artist statements to qualify their work to viewers. In Garfinkle’s case, she used highly patterned work surrounding photos of time spent in Bali.

In her words: “Good & Evil” alludes to the Hindu/Buddhist belief system where good exists simultaneously with evil within all persons. It is up to the person to focus on the good and to mitigate against evil impulses.”

Is it just me, or is Garfinkle obfuscating the entire subject, while feigning to have something to actually say about it? Otherwise I’m certain her photos are very nice.

In defense of liberal artists, most actually do believe in absolute evil; George Bush is the icon of unspeakable evil and the fount of all social and political evil from about 1946 (his birth ) to now. Ask Obama.

For the most part it’s been considered provincial and terribly gauche to even hint at patriotism or extol the Founders of the U.S. republic (with a few exceptions). Why such a different take when we have a perfectly respectable revolution of our own? I have a few guesses.

The (North) American Revolution just slightly preceded and avoided the pre-Marxist series of disasters in France. Affected liberation zeal and the same philosophers, Americans avoided genocidal infighting and self-exaltation of our leaders. Even more so, American colonists conspicuously spoke of, wrote on and prayed to God for guidance – even officially and in public!

Perhaps religion and allusions to God bring such a stench to the godless that they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge any benefits they might gain by it – a sort of social schizophrenia that some liberals are prone to, like refusing to breathe free air because someone may have prayed over it. It’s their loss and sometimes ours.

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