Josť Clemente Orozco | Mexico | Living in Mexico

José Clemente Orozco

Many tourists include the murals of Diego Rivera on their "must see" list, and for good reason. Barefoot women holding enormous bundles of calla lilies, campesinos in white cotton and pointed sombreros, indios doing small chores in a sunny yard—all create a picture of a peaceful, warm, slightly exotic country, a world away from graffiti-covered walls, thumping car stereos and corrupt Federales seeking bribes. Rivera depicts the Mexico, however imaginary, we'd all like to see.

He's famous for his murals, and he's first in a country of muralists. No city with a modicum of pride is without them in their public buildings. In Guadalajara, I was introduced to another painter: José Clemente Orozco.


Photo: Edward Weston

Orozco's (oh-ROSE-ko's) vision is darker, less optimistic than Rivera's. Concerned about the direction Mexico was taking after La Revolución, he painted cataclysmic murals and drew cynical caricatures of politicians, soldiers and clergy.

An extensive set of his murals depict the Spanish Conquest, in the Cabañas Instituto Cultural. As I walked through the main hall, I saw a group of students lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling of the rotunda. I lay down with them and took this photo:


Here, although we are looking up, we find ourselves seeing down into an inferno, bodies falling into a hell of conquest, of enslavement. We are disoriented, horrified, as must have been those warred upon by the Spanish. This image represents the essential Orozco. No dancing campañeros here; no abuelas (grandmothers) in their huipils, grinding corn on metates.

Elsewhere in the Cabañas there's a gallery of Orozco's drawings, most of them studies for murals.


Malevolent caricatures of military officers gleefully gesticulate. What are they so happy about? We really don't want to know.


Miguel Hidalgo (wiki) was one of Mexico's heroes, a priest who helped start and lead the fight for independence from Spain. He is remembered for uttering El Grito (The Cry) which can be considered Mexico's Declaration of Independence, and he did it right here in nearby Delores Hidalgo. He is usually depicted standing heroically erect, with a stern, noble look on his face. Some images show him issuing El Grito. Here's a statue of him on the great plaza in the center of Guadalajara.


It's typical melodramatic State art. He shouts furiously at the Spanish. His outstretched hands hold the broken links of imperialist chains. No elementary school student could be so dull as to fail to get the message.

Orozco's vision of Hidalgo is different—and characteristically, more disturbing.


The good father shouts -¡Viva México! He flails with his left fist; his right holds a burning brand. Below him, a sea of red banners, a mob fighting, people impaled on blades.

What is going on here? Is this the heroic army Hidalgo led to an early near-victory over the Spanish? Where is the patriotism? The glory? This is a brutal orgy of violence. There are no ideals here; only agony, only death.

Hidalgo's image is the focal point of a huge mural. It is impossible to take it in with a single view. It cannot be photographed in its entirety. As the gaze shifts away from the center, the message becomes more obscure, more frightening.


Buttressing the figure of Father Hidalgo is a scene from an insane asylum, or perhaps from Hell. Society's evils wreak havoc. The isms are caught up in a terrible struggle: Fascism, Communism, Capitalism, Catholicism, all jumbled together. Demons catalyze the fight.

Is this what Miguel Hidalgo set loose? Or is it what he was fighting? One thing is certain. Orozco is not allowing us reassuring thoughts of a world made better by one of its heroes.

[Orozco painted for many years in the United States. You can see his murals at Dartmouth and Pomona College, among other places.]