jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

jose orozco

Stairwell Orozco

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twombly from above

The Menil Collection encompasses multiple buildings spread across a campus of carpeted lawns.  In addition to the main collection and Rothko Chapel buildings, there are three site specific light works by Dan Flavin at nearby Richmond Hall, a Byzantine Fresco Chapel designed by M. Menil himself to house two thirteenth-century frescoes in a consecrated setting for the Church of Cyprus, and in collaboration with the Dia Art Foundation, the Cy Twombly Gallery, housing more than thirty works by the abstract painter and sculptor.  I must confess that I don’t have any particular connection or attraction to Twombly’s work but the structure itself, designed by Renzo Piano, is hushed, cool and reverent – a perfect setting to contemplate Twombly’s abstractions.

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