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Artists Jose Clemente Orozco
Jose Clemente Orozco Photo

Jose Clemente Orozco

Mexican Cartoonist, Printmaker, Painter and Muralist

Movements and Styles: Mexican Muralism, Social Realism

Born: November 23, 1883 - Zapotlán (now Cuidad Guzmán), Mexico

Died: September 7, 1949 - Mexico City, Mexico

Jose Clemente Orozco Timeline

Quotes

"Painting in its higher form and painting as a minor folk art differ essentially in this: the former has invariable universal traditions from which no one can separate himself [...] the latter has purely local traditions." [As opposed to Rivera and Siqueiros' view].
Jose Clemente Orozco
"[Murals] cannot be hidden away for the benefit of the privileged few."
Jose Clemente Orozco
"A painting is a poem and nothing else."
Jose Clemente Orozco
"The mural is the highest, most rational, purest, and most powerful form of painting [....] It is also the most disinterested form since it can neither be turned into a source of private profit nor hidden away for the enjoyment of a privileged few. It is for the people. For everybody."
Jose Clemente Orozco
"All aesthetics, of whatever kind, are a movement forward and not backward... An artwork is never negative. By the very fact of being an artwork, it is constructive."
Jose Clemente Orozco
"In every painting, as in any other work of art, there is always an idea, never a story. The idea is the point of departure, the first cause of the plastic construction, and it is present all the time as energy-creating matter."
Jose Clemente Orozco
"Jose Clemente Orozco, along with the popular engraver, Jose Guadalupe Posada, is the greatest artist, whose work expresses genuinely the character and the spirit of the people of the City of Mexico. [...] Profoundly sensual, cruel, moralistic, and rancorous as a good, semi-blond descendent of Spaniards, he has the force and mentality of a servant of the Holy Office [...] in all his work one feels the simultaneous presence of love, of pain and of death."
Diego Rivera
"Artists don't have any 'political convictions' of any kind. And if they believe they have them, they are not artists."
Jose Clemente Orozco
[On his life] "There is nothing of special interest in it, no famous exploits or heroic deeds, no extraordinary or miraculous happenings. Only the uninterrupted and tremendous effort of a Mexican painter to learn his trade and find opportunities to practice it."
Jose Clemente Orozco

"Painting assails the mind, it persuades the heart"

Jose Clemente Orozco Signature

Synopsis

Of "Los tres grandes" (The Three Greats) of the Mexican Muralists, José Clemente Orozco, notoriously introverted and pessimistic, is in many ways the least revered. One possible explanation for that is that, unlike his colleagues, David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, Orozco openly criticized both the Mexican Revolution and the post-Revolution government. What was perceived as standoffishness was, by all accounts, the profound despair of a person who felt deeply for others. Orozco's style is a mixture of conventional, Renaissance-period compositions and modeling, emotionally expressive, modernist abstraction, typically dark, ominous palettes, and forms and iconography deriving from the country's indigenous, pre-colonial, pre-European art. Orozco's skill as a cartoonist and print maker is detectable not only in his style but also in his ability to communicate a complex message -- generally, timely political subjects -- simply and on a massive scale. The Mexican Muralist movement as a whole asserted the importance of large-scale public art and Orozco's murals, in particular, made space for bold, open social and political critique.

Key Ideas

Along with Rivera and Siqueiros, Orozco revived the tradition of Italian Renaissance fresco painting via the large-scale murals meant to engage a wider viewership. The goal was to create a more democratic art form; that is, to make their art - its post-Mexican Revolution, nationalistic themes - accessible to people from all social strata.
Orozco worked as an editorial cartoonist for two radical political magazines His subsequent murals functioned as massive, and at least semi-public, critiques much in the way a political cartoon in a newspaper or pamphlet potentially engages with a wide audience through broad distribution.
Like Rivera, Orozco received commissions to produce murals in the United States. His avant-garde, expressionist style combined with the Mexican Muralists' revival of Social Realism, influenced American artists as diverse as Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, Ben Shahn and Jacob Lawrence.

Most Important Art

Jose Clemente Orozco Famous Art

Maternity (1923-24)

This mural is one of Orozco's earliest frescoes, painted for the ground floor of the National Preparatory School (ENP) in Mexico City. Maternity depicts a mother and child; it resembles Renaissance depictions of Mary and the infant Jesus, with the exception of the conspicuous nudity of the mother. Allegorical Boticelli-esque females in deep folds of windblown drapery surround the mother and child. A sensual, reclining nude female turns her back to the viewer as she eats grapes, the fruit associated with Dionysus and celebration. The women are noticeably European: blond and with classical features. The Renaissance influence is striking not only in the representation of the figures themselves but also in the pyramidal composition and the lapis lazuli-colored garment the mother wears, a color traditionally linked to the figure of the Virgin Mary.

Following the Mexican Revolution, the new government encouraged the production of public art to promote a nationalist program of unity, of the concept of an integrated populace or "Mexicanos." However, Orozco's use of overtly European figures seems to challenge the assertion by an increasingly authoritarian government that equality had been achieved. In this work, the beauty standard is European rather than indigenous. Here we see Orozco subtly critique the very institution that commissioned him for the work.

This particular mural is of immense value because it is the only surviving one of Orozco's earliest frescoes, as most were destroyed by conservative students at the ENP while others were demolished by Orozco himself. In fact, a group of Catholic women misinterpreted the secular meaning of Maternity, thought it sacrilegious, and attacked it.
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Jose Clemente Orozco Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Education

Orozco, one of four brothers, spent his first years in the southwestern region of Jalisco, Mexico. His father had a soap, ink, and coloring factory in addition to being an editor for the newspaper, La Abeja. His mother was a housewife who occasionally gave the women of the community painting classes. The family moved first to Guadalajara and then Mexico City in the hopes of improving their financial situation. Despite their efforts, however, the times were not easy for middle class families and it was often difficult for the family to make ends meet.

On his way to and from school the young Orozco would pass by the shop where José Guadalupe Posada - a politically engaged cartoonist famous for his images of skulls and skeletons - worked in full-view from the street. Fascinated, Orozco started to experiment with drawing and coloring, later recalling the experience of watching Posada work as an "awakening" to the existence of art. He began to take evening drawing classes.

Later, he was urged (forced, rather) to study agricultural engineering for the sake of financial security. It was only after his father's death that Orozco became fully committed to pursuing an artistic career. A remarkable decision considering he had lost his left hand after manipulating fireworks for Independence Day celebrations in 1904. Since most doctors were on holiday, by the time treatment was available for the injury, gangrene had taken over and it had become necessary to amputate his entire hand.

Orozco studied full-time at the San Carlos Academy from 1906-14, and participated at the 1911 student's strike along with fellow student and future muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. It was in night classes at the Academy where Orozco met Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), the slightly older artist who frequently shared captivating stories of his adventures in Europe. Dr. Atl was a fervent advocate of promoting a distinctively Mexican art and was opposed to copying the European style that was a requisite activity in the Academy. It was with the confidence that Dr. Atl instilled in his young students that Orozco began experimenting with Mexican landscapes and introducing familiarly vibrant colours into his paintings. It was the seed that developed into the artistic emancipation of Mexico.

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Jose Clemente Orozco Biography Continues

Early Period

Jose Clemente Orozco Biography

In the early years of his artistic career, Orozco worked as a caricaturist for various oppositional newspapers. He landed a solo exhibition of his watercolours depicting female prostitutes and men past their prime, poignantly entitled "The House of Tears." Perhaps as a mirror to his own struggles, Orozco's focus on human suffering was a predominant theme in his early work. Despite this recognition of his artistic merit, Orozco found himself painting dolls to pay the bills.

During the violent battles of the Mexican Revolution, Orozco worked as an illustrator for a pro-Carranza newspaper called La Vanguardia. He witnessed the carnage of the Revolution first-hand, an experience that would forever mark his work and heavily contribute to a pessimistic outlook on life. He said of the Revolution: "The world was torn apart around us. Troop convoys passed on their way to slaughter ... Trains back from the battlefield unloaded their cargoes in the station in Orizaba: the wounded; the tired; exhausted, mutilated soldiers, sweating and tatterdemalion. In the world of politics it was the same, war without quarter, struggle for power and wealth. Factions and sub-factions were past counting, the thirst for vengeance insatiable" Unlike Rivera and Siqueiros, the other two famous muralists who, along with Orozco, made up the avant-garde muralists known as "Los tres grandes" (The Three Greats), Orozco was an anarchist. He was vehemently anti-institution, anti-military, anti-clerical, anti-establishment, and so forth, because he felt these institutions were all inevitably and inherently corrupt.

Orozco took up residence in the United States from 1917 to 1919, working mainly as a sign-painter first in San Francisco, and then in New York. He met with Siqueiros one night as the latter was on his way to Europe and went to dinner along with Xavier Guerrero, where they argued profusely about the future of art in Mexico. In 1920, he returned to Mexico, where he received his first public commission at the National Preparatory School as part of the new government's plan to broadcast its messages of a modern Mexican identity.

He married Margarita Valladares in 1923 and the couple had three children. In the following years, Orozco's colleagues in the arts admired him greatly. Despite the praise from this small intellectual elite, however, Orozco was generally underappreciated in his country. He left his family in 1927 to work in the United States, where he witnessed the effects of the Great Depression first-hand. He befriended the journalist and arts patron Alma Reed, who had fallen in love with a Mexican governor on a work trip to Mexico only to discover he had been murdered during the Revolution while she returned to the US for the wedding preparations. Alma Reed invited Orozco to her intellectual soirees and showed his work in her house. On one of these evenings, the Greek Orthodox patriarch in New York saw in Orozco's work the greatness of classical antiquity and crowned him with a symbolic laurel wreath. During his stay in the US, he painted some of his most famous murals in Pomona, the New School, Dartmouth, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Mature Period

Jose Clemente Orozco Photo

In 1932 Orozco traveled to Europe for the first time, visiting all the compulsory museum destinations. He returned to Mexico as a greatly respected artist and painted his masterpiece at the Hospicio Cabanas in Guadalajara, hailed as the "Sistine Chapel of the Americas," and eventually named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A testament to his technical virtuosity, Orozco would apply paint directly onto the wall in the notoriously unforgiving fresco technique without sketching the mural beforehand. His preparatory sketches were made solely on paper, never on the mural itself. He was known to be a taciturn man, generally preferring his own company and quiet work in his studio, an almost binary opposite to the garrulous personality of his friend and sometimes rival, Diego Rivera.

Around 1943, Orozco met the prima ballerina of the Mexico City Ballet, Gloria Campobello, for whom he left his first wife. The couple lived together in New York until 1946, when Campobello ended the relationship abruptly. He then returned to Mexico to live alone.

Later Period

Jose Clemente Orozco Portrait

Orozco's oeuvre from the 1940s included many portraits and a series of anti-clerical and anti-military paintings. In 1946, he was awarded the national Prize for his murals in the Church of the Hospital of Jesus. In 1947, he illustrated Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck's book, The Pearl, at Steinbeck's request. That same year he had a major retrospective exhibition in Mexico's most important museum, the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Orozco's numerous self-portraits enable us to understand his personality. He depicts himself as an intellectual and a dour man of intense reflection. His eyes have the piercing hardness of a witness inured to some of the most horrid aspects of our species. One can picture him enraged or melancholy but is hard pressed to find any joy in his countenance. Indeed, Octavio Paz remarked "Orozco never smiled in his life". He completed his last fresco in 1949. He died of heart failure in his sleep, aged 65.


Legacy

Orozco's views on the Mexican Revolution differed radically from those of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Unlike the idealistic Rivera or the belligerent Siqueiros, Orozco had a deeply cynical regard for the revolution; he was disturbed by the extensive bloodshed and death toll, and skeptical of the potential of the protracted upheaval to benefit those who it seemed clear would suffer regardless of which forces prevailed. Orozco's focus from his earliest works onward centered on human suffering, no doubt a byproduct of the hardships he had suffered and witnessed in his own life. He had a notorious inability to connect with others on a one-to-one basis but showed tremendous empathy for humanity as a whole. Perhaps ironically, his greatest legacy is to have challenged the very nationalist sentiment that provided him with longstanding renown.

The artists inspired by Orozco range from the Mexican painter, sculptor and poet, Gustavo Arias Murueta, to Joan Mitchell, Rico Lubrun, Eleanor Coen, and Luis Nishizawa. Furthermore, an early phase of Jackson Pollock, when he was undergoing therapy with a Jungian doctor, is influenced by Orozco's work. In fact, Pollock and Philip Guston travelled together on an artistic pilgrimage to see Orozco's Epic of American Civilization. Pollock also declared Prometheus the greatest contemporary painting in North America.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Jose Clemente Orozco
Interactive chart with Jose Clemente Orozco's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Francisco GoyaFrancisco Goya
El GrecoEl Greco
GiottoGiotto
MichelangeloMichelangelo

Friends

Gerardo MurilloGerardo Murillo

Movements

CubismCubism
Jose Clemente Orozco
Jose Clemente Orozco
Years Worked: 1922 - 1949

Artists

Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Philip GustonPhilip Guston
Reuben KadishReuben Kadish
Charles WhiteCharles White

Friends

Diego RiveraDiego Rivera
David Alfaro SiqueirosDavid Alfaro Siqueiros

Movements

ExpressionismExpressionism

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Useful Resources on Jose Clemente Orozco

Books

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Jose Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934 Recomended resource

By Renato Gonzalez Mello

Jose Clemente Orozco: Mexican Artist (Hispanic Biography)

By Barbara Cruz

written by artist

Jose Clemente Orozco Recomended resource

By Jose Clemente Orozco

More Interesting Books about Jose Clemente Orozco
José Clemete Orozco's studies in the Michael Wornick collection Recomended resource

By Ruben Cordova
San Jose Museum of Art
2015

Orozco at Dartmouth

By Eric C. Harding
Etchings.com
1997

José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera- the murals

By Hayden Herrera
Mexconnect
1990

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