rivera and orozco -- 3/24/23

Today's selection -- from The Visual Arts: A History by Hugh Honour & John Fleming. The Mexican artists Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949):
"Though politics have influenced the visual arts throughout history in many and different ways, most notably under the Ancient Roman Empire and during the revolutionary and counter­revolutionary years of the nineteenth century, they have seldom played so prominent a role as they did during the 1920s and 1930s. Relations between Communism and the arts were close, though they followed a zigzag course both in Russia and in western Europe. Fascism and Nazism were also actively concerned with art as propaganda; and the period closed with one of Picasso's major works which is also his only explicitly political painting [Guernica].

"However, it was in Mexico that the relationship between politics and art during these years was most fruitful, partly because the Mexican artists themselves formulated much of the theoretical base on which their program for a new public art was erected, and partly because it was combined with the quest to rediscover their national identity. By the time Rivera painted his The Making of a Fresco, showing the Building of a City the revolu­tionary fervour of his early years had relaxed, but it continued to inform all his work and it is in this context that his paintings and also those of his sometime companions Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1894-1974) should be seen.
"Mexico had thrown off Spanish colonial rule in 1821 and there followed a turbulent century marked by the loss in 1848 of New Mexico, Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and parts of Colorado and Wyoming to the USA. Twenty years later Napoleon III made his disastrous attempt to take over the country and install the archduke Maximilian as emperor. By 1910, when the Mexican Revolution began, 90 per cent of the peasants had been dispossessed of their land and were forced to live under an iniquitous system of debt peonage to their oppressive landlords, not all of whom were Mexicans. A decade of civil war ended in 1920 with the election of Alvaro Obregon as president and the installation of a revolutionary nationalist, rather than a full-scale Communist or Socialist regime. It immediately and actively promoted an ambitious cultural program for which Siqueiros (whose most remarkable works were painted much later) drew up a formal 'Declaration of Social, Political and Aesthetic Principles' in 1922, from which the following extract is taken.

'The noble work of our race, down to its most insignificant spiritual and physical expressions, is native (and essentially Indian) in origin. With their admirable and extraordinary talent to create beauty, peculiar to themselves, the art of the Mexican people is the most wholesome spiritual expression in the world and this tradition is our greatest treasure. Great because it belongs collectively to the people and this is why our fundamental aesthetic goal must be to socialize artistic expression and wipe out bourgeois individualism.
We repudiate so-called easel painting and every kind of art favoured by ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic, and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property.
We proclaim that at this time of social change from a decrepit order to a new one, the creators of beauty must use their best efforts to produce ideological works of art for the people; art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction which it is today, but should aim to become a fighting, educative art for all.'

“Before Rivera had completed his first great cycle of murals for the Ministry of Public Education he painted another and only slightly less ambitious series for the National Agricultural School at Chapingo just outside Mexico City. Agrarian and land reform issues had been central to the Mexican Revolution ever since 1910 and in devoting this entire cycle to them Rivera was able to realize more completely than in any other work his two great didactic themes, that of the social and political revolution and that of Mexico's national identity. Mexican Indians and peasants had begun to figure increasingly in his murals as personifications of Mexico and at Chapingo they naturally took a central role together with the land itself, to which the whole cycle was conceived as a hymn based on Emiliano Zapata's words, 'here it is taught to exploit the land not the man'. There are panels devoted to The Partition of the Land and to Good and Bad Government, the latter recalling, if only in name, the frescoes by Lorenzetti in Siena. In the former chapel of the Agrarian School buildings two carefully balanced series depict in complemen­tary manner the revolutionary transfer of the ownership of the land and the biological and geological evolution of the earth, thus conveying Rivera's vision of the one as a counterpart of the other. The whole theme is summarized in two panels on either side of the chapel entrance, one depicting The Agitator, the other The Blood of the Revolutionary Martyrs Fertilizing the Earth.

The Epic of American Civilization

"In contrast to Rivera's work in the USA, that of Orozco became more rather than less outspoken, notably in the murals he painted for the Baker Library of Dartmouth College in Hanover, Massachusetts, in 1932. Orozco was in no way inhibited by the fact that Dartmouth College had become a prestigious East Coast bastion of white Anglo-Saxon privilege despite having been founded specifically to provide education for Native Americans. Indeed the College's equivocal past set the theme: that of a continent characterized by the dualities of its conflicting indigenous and European historical experiences. Orozco's conception of the American 'idea' centred on the myth of Quetzal­coatl and was represented on the two main walls of the library with murals of America's Pre-Columbian civiliza­tion confronting post-Cortes America. The final panels in the series show, firstly, a chilly world of puritan conformity with white school-children standing obediently around their straight-laced woman teacher.

"In contrast, Hispanic or Latin America is represented by a tragic but also poten­tially heroic world in which the rebel Emiliano Zapata stands as the only upright figure among corrupt politicians and generals. Orozco said apropos this powerful image that the 'best representation of Hispanic­ American idealism, not as an abstract idea but as an accomplished fact, would be, I think, the figure of a rebel. After the destruction of the armed revolution (whether against a foreign aggressor or local exploiter or dictator) there remains a triumphant ideal with the chance of realization. If there is any need for expressing in just one sentence the highest ideal of the Hispanic-American here, it would be as follows: ‘Justice whatever the cost’ Zapata is being stabbed in the back by a North American general in Orozco's mural and, significantly, the general is accompanied by some of Zapata's own countrymen as well as by foreign businessmen. In the final panel Orozco delivered his deeply pessimistic judge­ment on modern America. Echoing Quetzalcoatl's condemnation of his people's worship of false gods, he castigated his contemporaries' false knowledge and their worship of money and power and the violence of their blind nationalism. As a final gesture of despair he painted in the background a junk heap, the detritus of an industrial and consumer society."

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Hugh Honour & John Fleming


The Visual Arts: A History


Laurence King Publishing


Copyright 1982, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2009 Flem


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