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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pilgrim’s progress

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels

If you’re in need of ennobling – and really, aren’t we all? – you could heed no better advice than to hightail it over to The Frick Collection. The museum is presenting the first monographic exhibition in the United States on the artist Piero della Francesca, a founding figure of the Italian Renaissance. Of the seven paintings on display, six are panels from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece – the largest number from this masterwork ever reassembled publicly – along with Piero’s only intact altarpiece in this country, the magisterial Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. If you aren’t intimately familiar with the work of Piero – and I must admit my own ignorance on the subject – it’s likely due to two reasons: much of his recorded output has been either lost or destroyed, and the surviving works, being primarily frescoes, remain in situ, scattered among a handful of churches within the Tuscan triangle of San Sepolcro, Urbino, and Arezzo. Getting to know Piero demands a degree of pilgrimage - which only seems proper for an artist whose works revolves on religious themes. So, be thankful The Frick is as close as East 70th Street. It might not be an exhaustive survey, but there’s less voyage, more visit. Because visiting with Piero’s subjects is what you’ll want to do. His cool color palette and geometrical composition contributes to a refined and meditative nature. Piero was also a mathematical theorist, which makes perfect sense when you see the clearly defined volume of his figures and precision perspective. Balanced by a naturalism derived in part from his interactions with Flemish artists, Piero’s scenes exude a serenity, whether it be Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Apollonia, Saint Monica or The Crucifixion, which seeps into the viewer, and turns the seemingly simple act of looking a pictures into an offering of nobility.

St. Apollonia

The Crucifixion

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