Mural painting in Mexico sprang to life in the 1920s and 1930s, and it was one of those artistic awakenings that is forever linked to a certain amount of uproar. Murals are big, and lend themselves to big themes, gestures and notions of the world and our place in it. Murals matched the temper of the times — the period between the two World Wars brought economic depression, revolution, uncertainty, assassination and anxiety.
In 1933, Adolph Hitler began 12 years as dictator of the German Reich, and Franklin D. Roosevelt began 12 years as president of the US The year before Gandhi started his “fast unto death” to protest British treatment of India’s caste of “untouchables,” while at the same time, 34 million Americans had no income of any kind. A year later, in 1934 Gen. Lazaro Cardenas was elected president of Mexico and proclaimed his desire to revive the revolutionary activity of the masses.
History is often a mess, but this was an unusually large mess, and lent itself to epic art. The leading light among the Mexican muralists was Diego Rivera, whose visionary and controversial work livens the walls of the National Palace in Mexico City, and who may be remembered best for riling up Nelson Rockefeller with a portrait of Lenin he incorporated into a fresco for New York’s Rockefeller Center. The mural was covered up, then later destroyed — as depicted, more or less, in the current film, Cradle Will Rock.
At almost the same moment, the second leading light of Mexican fresco painting was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where he had accepted an appointment as a visiting professor. Jose Clemente Orozco, like Rivera, offered a sweeping and revolutionary artistic vision, marked by a willingness to offer disturbing images and unsettling ideas. If it seems odd now that he was on the faculty of an elite eastern Ivy League school, it probably seemed odd then, too. But art and money have always intertwined in ambiguous and not always comfortable ways; Orozco certainly made some of the Dartmouth faculty edgy, but his presence was also an institutional coup.
The idea of his residency was demonstrative: Orozco would show, not tell. He began with a fresco in a corridor that linked Baker Library with the Carpenter Art Building, and then moved on to the reserve reading room in the library itself, where, from 1932 until 1934, he covered 3000 square feet of wall with a vision entitled “The Epic of American Civilization.” How’s that for an oversized topic?
Like Rivera, Orozco liked to sink his teeth into things; unlike Rivera, he had an oblique narrative style that was not so confrontational. The murals glow still on the library walls like some message from an angry and disappointed god, but it’s sometimes hard to know what the god is really saying. Hence, at the time it may have been harder to frame a reasonable objection.
One of the oddities of the Orozco murals at Dartmouth is that viewers seem to require a lot of instructions before they make much sense. At the library, three different critical interpretations are readily available, two of them laying out on the reserve-desk counter. The third is produced instantly if you ask. The reserve desk also has slides of the murals and a hefty coffee-table book, unfortunately written in German but offering four-color images of Orozco’s work throughout his career. This abundance of support material seems to be in response to the particular impenetrability of the fresco images themselves, which are simultaneously unified and without unity, fractured and aggressively whole.
Orozco himself wrote, just after the work was completed, that to say a painting tells a story is “wrong and untrue. Now the organic idea of every painting, even the worst in the world, is extremely obvious to the average spectator with normal mind and normal sight. The artist cannot possibly hide it. It may be a poor, superfluous and ridiculous idea, or a great and significant one.”
So what is the idea here? To this average spectator, the Dartmouth murals seem to be about a world in which nobody gets off easy and things slide out of control. In it we see human sacrifice, powerful beings who arrive without invitation and behave badly or are misunderstood, and the crush and press of deadly machinery. It’s kind of depressing and heavy-handed; one panel contains a skeleton on its back, legs apart, giving birth to horrid little skeletons in Bell jars, and attended by other skeletons dressed in academic regalia. Orozco called this panel “Gods of the Modern World,” and you have to wonder what the trustees of Dartmouth thought of that. But unlike Rivera’s, the painting stands unedited — proof, perhaps, of that distinctly Yankee brand of tolerance.
David Budbill, Vermont author of Judevine, speculates whether the contents of the Orozco murals got them exiled to the relatively low-traffic reserve reading room. “It’s a funny place for an artist of Orozco’s stature to work,” he said, adding that the murals do have searing and unpleasant things to say about the groves of academe. Not surprisingly, the official Dartmouth position is that the Orozco murals are great art and they are happy to have them, but it’s hard not to see Budbill’s point.
Still, a Dartmouth pamphlet written about the murals, written a few months after they were completed, indicates that Orozco chose the library basement himself — the artist apparently announced that the walls there were suitable for “the conception that had been growing in his mind for a mural project which he hoped would become the greatest work of his career — an epic of civilization on the American continent.”
Basements do usually offer long runs of blank wall, unadulterated by windows, and this particular basement space is large with a very high ceiling. But the authors of the same pamphlet suspected trouble ahead: “That the Orozco murals should arise controversy was anticipated and desired,” it proclaimed. “Passive acceptance has no legitimate place in the educational process, and the double-edged incisiveness of controversy is one of the major educational values to be derived from a work as positive and vital as Orozco’s.”
Vital, yes. Positive, no. As a collection of linked images, the Orozco epic focuses with alarming precision on human greed, militarism, fetishism and the subversion of otherwise potentially good ideas. It depicts a world in which any sense of purposeful community inevitability turns savage and jingoistic, in which Christianity becomes a vehicle for suffering a slaughter, and where pre-Columbian tribal society is savage, obsessive and coercive.
The coming of the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl only offers a single panel of relative order before he goes away again, peeved by the moral slippage of humans into complacency and barbarism. Elsewhere, a dreamy Cortez brings the cross and the sword to the Americas, along with a lot of unpleasant ideas about war, politics, machines, education and nationalism. Christ waves an axe, having just cut down his own cross, which lies sprawled on the unseemly wreckage of American civilization. The colors are spectacular, the draftsmanship is arresting and the visual rhythms are pounding, but the whole thing reeks of a terrible, permanent pessimism that is only partly reconciled in the final panels.
The “Ideal Modern Culture” panels in the closing images of the Orozco epic are grayish and creepy compared to the previous mayhem, but there is in them an effort to imagine a serene, egalitarian world where people can get along. The grinding-out-of-control machines of the previous sections are replaced by scenes where construction workers are clearly in charge of their cranes and pickaxes, yet the people in these scenes turn their back on the viewer and dress ore or less identically in the sackcloth and ashes of socialism. We cannot see their faces or scan their meaning — which is a mild relief after the full frontal agony of the previous images — but it's also disturbing. It implies that the price of an ideal modern culture is anonymity and a general absence of fun.
Did Orozco really advocate this, or was he tuckered out after so many thousands of square feet where he was painting, so to speak, at the top of his lungs?
The oddest mystery is the final image. In it, a worker reclines in the foreground, propped on his elbow and reading a book. He wears white gloves, not work gloves, but soft cotton ones, like those I once had to wear to dancing class. He rests and reads, but the image is vaguely disturbing, as if the gloves imply both a reverence for reading and a formal distance from it. As one analysis puts it, the worker is now free to “put down his tools and nourish his spirit,” but a study of the man’s face reveals narcoleptic placidity almost bovine in its emptiness. After so much bloodshed and backsliding, is it really possible that his soporific posture can carry the day?
In the background is a new kind of skeleton, a building under construction, with its squared-off corners and vague hope of an orderly tomorrow, but as buildings go it’s pretty tedious — it looks like an office block, or maybe a Wal-Mart.
The Orozco murals at Dartmouth explain a great deal about why it is so much fun to live in New England, home to oddities and juxtapositions. There is no denying that the presence of this Mexican muralist’s work in an elite school that was founded to Christianize the heathens has enough irony embedded in it to please almost anyone. It’s a satisfying part of the general jumble and, like the many government-sponsored murals also painted during the Depression, it speaks to a touching and perhaps accurate belief that art offers cultural sustenance when food and money are in short supply.