Orozco's The Trench
The Mexican Muralist Movement began as an effort to unite Mexico after the divisive Revolution and create a new national identity. One of the most notable muralists was José Clemente Orozco whose paintings were vivid and intense. He sought to show the horrors of the fighting, and the sacrifices Mexicans made for a new country.
Ross Chambless: After the nearly 10-year-long Mexican Revolution came to an end – around 1920 officially – Mexico’s leaders were keen to peacefully unite the country, but also to teach people the values of the revolution. This led to the launch of Mexico’s Muralist Movement.
Susan Vogel: The launch of the Muralist Movement, post-revolution, is considered to be when the new President of Mexico, Alvaro Obregón, hired José Vasconcelos Calderón as Minister of Education.
José Vasconcelos Calderón
Ross: Vasconcelos was considered a bit of Renaissance man.
Susan: He had something called “Cosmic Vision”, of the races coming together, creating this new race in Mexico, which is Mestizo.
Ross: He also believed education should be for everyone.
Susan: So, one of the values of the Revolution fought for was free, secular, public education for everybody. This was a really big effort. In many rural areas, there was only Catholic education, and it only went to Second Grade or so. Teachers weren’t qualified, and it focused on religious events and holidays.
Ross: To bring the country together the Mexican Government sought to create a uniform system of public schools throughout the country, open to everyone.
Susan: Part of the challenge was that there were so many people that did not speak Spanish, or read Spanish, and very low levels of literacy. So, part of the effort was to teach people in ways that didn’t require reading.
José Clemente Orozco, Zapatistas marchando (Zapatistas Marching), oil on canvas, 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Ross: And so, Vasconcelos, believed the Mexican Government could teach people through art. This was not necessarily a new idea.
Susan: If you go Europe and look at all those murals on the walls and stainglass windows of the Cathedral, that’s what they are doing.
Ross: Vasconcelos began a program to hire artists to paint the values of the Revolution. They were to paint public murals with nationalistic, social and political messages on public buildings and in public spaces. He also enrolled cultural missionaries, including artists and educated people to travel to Mexico’s rural areas where indigenous communities lived and share this new vision of Mexico.
Susan: I think after any Revolution, the country is challenged with how you bring this country back together. How do you create a national identity?
One of Orozco's most famed creations is the allegory of The Man of Fire, Hospicio Cabanas, Guadalajara (1936–39).
I’m Ross Chambless, and this is Nuevas Voces – a podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah – a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City. This is a podcast about Mexican history through the lens of art. This is part 12. In this episode we’re talking about the beginnings of the Mexican Muralist Movement. The movement lasted for nearly half a century following the Mexican Revolution. It’s had a lasting impact on Mexican national identity, and it revealed how powerful public art can be in shaping how people think and feel about a shared culture and history. We’ll be talking about a few notable murals and artists in the next few episodes, so get ready.
Now, where were we?
Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Formerly the National Preparatory School
Ross: To get this massive public art initiative launched, the first projects were commissioned to be painted in Mexico City’s prestigious National Preparatory High School.
Susan: Now it is the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso.
Ross: A number of artists contributed mural work there, including Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fermín Revueltas, and Fernando Leal…
Susan: Orozco was one of them.
Ross: That’s José Clemente Orozco. We’ll be talking about him a little later.
Susan: Rivera had just come back from Paris, he was one of them.
Ross: Diego Rivera – one of Mexico’s most famous muralists. You’ve probably heard of him. We’ll get to him and some of his most famous works in later episodes.
Susan: Jean Charlot, who married a nice Mormon girl from Utah, was another. There were various others.
Ross: About this same time, many of the artists formed a group called the “Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors.”
Diego Rivera and the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors.
Susan: Its tenants were “art in the service of people; it condemned easel painting as bourgeoisie – That was the worst you could say about anyone or anything, among this group. It was in favor of monumental public art. And it considered artists to be workers. Artists were paid by the square foot like plasterers. And they were proud to be workers. They wore overalls. And they would solicit the input of the common worker. Because they believed that they were no better than the common worker like the janitor, and felt their comments or opinions were just as important as other artists.
Fanny Blauer: I think muralism is powerful that way. Because the heroes are the people. It’s a way to reclaim our legitimacy as Mexicans.
José Clemente Orozco
One of the so-called “big three” most famous artists from the muralist movement was José Clemente Orozco. We’re going to talk about one of his most famous murals dealing directly with the Revolution – The Trench – because it reflects his own conflicted feelings about the issue. Here’s Fanny again.
Fanny: What I find interesting about Orozco in comparison to the other two big muralists, Siqueiros and Rivera, is that Orozco did not have faith in human kind. He didn’t support the cause of the Revolution. He didn’t endorse the figures of the Revolution. He believed the Revolution just brought bloodshed to the people of Mexico.
Ross: Apparently, Orozco also believed there was no room for idealism in his works. Orozco is often overshadowed by Diego Rivera, but in his later years was invited to paint frescos across the world for major institutions, including in the U.S. where he spent a total of 10 years. He accomplished this even as he overcame poverty, survived the Revolution, and later losing his left hand in a fireworks injury as a young man. You can find images of a number of Orozco’s famous works, on our website, including The Trench.
Orozco's The Trench, in Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, 1926.
Fanny: When I look at the Trench, I definitely see a lack of faith in human kind. What I see is these three men, one in the form of almost a crucifixion. There’s a lot of pain and sadness. I don’t see anything positive happening in this painting. It was all about blood and death. So, Orozco wasn’t a supporter of glorifying pre-Columbian culture and human sacrifice. Because he said corruption and bloody events by human [behavior] was cyclical. It was always happening. He said in modern life we still do human sacrifice. So this painting makes me think of those who died in honor of the Revolution. We need people who died for those causes so we can remember them.
Ross: Orozco said that he was more interested in painting dead soldiers than creating statues of living soldiers, because he wanted to show the ultimate sacrifice the people had made.
Fanny: That’s why he didn’t support the idea of glorifying the Revolution. He said this is something that’s going to happen always. Humans always fighting for something.
English version video about Orozco's murals by MUSA Museo de las Artes.
Ross: It’s important to note that Orozco had actually fought in the revolution. The same is true for Siqueiros. Diego Rivera, on the other hand, did not.
Susan: Rivera was in Paris. I think that is often an explanation as to why the work of Siqueiros and Orozco regarding warfare and the Revolution is much darker and more emotionally wrenching. Rivera did a mural also, called The Trenches also. And his soldiers are well-fed. And they’re safe. One of them has a tiny wound on his arm. Probably needs a band-aid. They are protected. The ones in Orozco's, they’re not even standing on their own. They’re collapsing and sliding down a trench. I like Orozco the most because his images are so powerful. When I look at Diego Rivera murals I’m just happy. I learn something. I see a lot of history and nice composition. When I see Orozco’s, it makes me want to sleep for 16 hours. I used to go to a museum in Mexico City that had a lot of his work, called Museo de Carrillo Gil, in San Angel. And I would go home and sleep for 16 hours. Because it was so devastating to see.
Luis López: Just by seeing these two pieces, and comparing Rivera to Orozco’s, the first I see are the colors. Diego Rivera’s are bright. Orozco’s are not. They are kind of opaque, kind of fading. There’s no life in that image of the Trenches. I just get that feeling of no hope.
Prometheus, painted by Orozco at Pamona College, Los Angeles, 1930.
Ross: It’s clear Orozco wanted us to know that people suffered during the Revolution. I think he wants people to remember how much people sacrificed for a new government for Mexico, perhaps so that people think twice in the future before engaging in war.
Well, we’ll be talking more about the Muralism Movement and what it meant for Mexico in the years after The Revolution in the next several episodes.
~ ~ ~
Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez, Ciriac Alvarez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: The music you heard in this episode comes from Calexico, Antonia Pinto, Jorge Negrete, and Elliot Goldenthal. This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.
Engage with Us:
How does Orozco’s portrayal of the Revolution in “The Trench” make you feel? What are your impressions of Orozco’s work generally?