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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california dreaming

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reina sofia

The state-of-the-art Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is a shining example of the Spanish flair for converting old-world architecture to contemporary purpose – in this case to meet the needs of a dynamic modern art collection. But while the collection of 20th century mostly Spanish art is exceptional, it’s not entirely in line with my particular tastes in painting. (I do love the Kandinsky and the early Salvador Dali but sorry, Miró, I  just can’t figure out what’s the fuss)  Like most of the crowd, I’ve come to see Picasso’s Guernica, arguably one of the most famous paintings of the post-war era. A defining work of cubism, where the disfiguration of the human form becomes an eloquent symbol of the world’s outrage at the horrors wrought upon the innocent by modern warfare, Picasso’s mural is a monumental 25-foot canvas that can barely control its  humanity. Painted by the artist in response to the bombing of the eponymous Basque town by German and Italian forces during the height of the Spanish Civil War, the canvas shows a world wrenched by violence and chaos. Is it any wonder that Picasso’s vision continues to fascinate us?

 

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