José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus
José Clemente Orozco was a courageous choice for the Pomona commission given his relative obscurity in 1930 and the fact that his style contrasted sharply with that of the muted, decorative murals to which the American public was accustomed. Orozco's early artistic training, at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, had been based on the study of classical Greek and Roman sculpture and emphasized drawing from the nude. To this influence was added that of the Renaissance master Michelangelo, whose muscular, expressively exaggerated human forms became a primary sources of inspiration. At the same time, Orozco was intensely aware of contemporary Mexican mural painting--bold and highly colored in style, fervently political in content. While one sees in Prometheus a blending of these influences, the finished painting rises above them, presenting a uniquely personal statement unlike anything seen before. As scholar David Scott has written: "In at least one fundamental sense, the Prometheus was the first major "modern" fresco in this country . . . It revealed a new concept of mural painting, a greatly heightened direct and personal expression. It challenged accepted conventions which decreed that wall decoration should be flat and graceful, pleasant, decorous, and impersonal. In the Prometheus, Expressionism achieved a monumental scale."
Prometheus was well-received at the time, and the skill with which Orozco had scaled the composition to its architectural environment was particularly applauded. In a Time magazine interview in 1930, architect Spalding was asked how he liked the mural; he responded: "I feel as though the building would fall down if the fresco were removed." Like many of history's greatest artists, Orozco did not paint primarily to provide aesthetic pleasure. He had something to say--in this case, a passionate statement about heroism and enlightenment--and the harsh and vigorous style he employed was deliberate, an expression of the fervor of his convictions and of his passion to communicate them.
In Greek myth, Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to humankind, an act for which he was punished by a vengeful Zeus and spurned by those ignorant of its value. The fire that Prometheus stole is traditionally understood to symbolize wisdom and enlightenment, and the myth, therefore, represented an apt metaphor for the task of the college. There may also have been a degree of personal identification in the choice of subject: Orozco, whose work was still largely unappreciated in 1930, saw himself as an heroic rebel whose efforts to enlighten, like those of Prometheus, were spurned and punished. It is also interesting to note in this context that, as a boy, Orozco's right hand had been badly injured in an explosion; in the mural, Orozco shows his hero reaching for the fire, intent on bringing it to earth. The reception to Prometheus' heroic act is mixed; while some of the figures below respond eagerly, most turn away, preoccupied by their own concerns.
The ceiling panel contains an abstract composition of geometric forms, from which stylized flames emerge. This is generally interpreted as a symbolic representation of God, from whom the fire of knowledge emanates.
The two flanking panels were designed by Orozco but painted in large part by his assistant Jorge Juan Crespo de la Serna. On the west, the Greek deities Zeus, Hera, and Io are portrayed; on the east are aging male centaurs and a female creature caught in the coils of a great serpent. Orozco described both of these as representing "the ancient times that Prometheus is upsetting by giving the fire of knowledge to man."
Following in the great western mural tradition, Orozco used "true fresco," a demanding and unforgiving technique in which colors are applied to wet plaster. Although relatively durable, the frescoed surface is vulnerable and, once damaged, extremely difficult to restore to its original appearance. Several major conservation efforts have been undertaken on Prometheus in recent years. In 1982, it was discovered that bricks lining the chimney behind the central figure had begun to crumble, endangering the entire wall. In a complex and painstaking process, the wall was reinforced from behind, saving the mural. More recently, the painting has been thoroughly cleaned, small areas of paint loss replaced, and new lights installed.
Like all works of art in public places, Orozco's Prometheus depends for its preservation on those who use the space, in this case, the Pomona students for whom the work was originally created. This great work of art is, thus, both a gift and a responsibility, and it is incumbent upon us all to assure that it is protected for future generations to enjoy.
The Orozco drawings seen here are seventeen preparatory works for the Prometheus mural in Frary Hall. Their recent acquisition by the College represents the culmination of nearly two decades of negotiation. Owned by the artist's family since 1930, the drawings include 5 compositional sketches for the mural's four panels and 12 figure studies. As a demonstration of Orozco's thought process as he prepared to execute the mural, they are invaluable to a thorough understanding of this landmark work of art.
All images © Pomona College and Clemente Orozco, 2000.