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Student Curators Uncover the Secret Past of "Prometheus" for 80th Anniversary Exhibition

"Prometheus," the historic fresco mural by José Clemente Orozco located in Frary Dining Hall at Pomona College

"Prometheus" in Frary Dining Hall

Study for central panel of "Prometheus": Torso with Raised Arm. Charcoal on paper.

Study for central panel of "Prometheus": Torso with Raised Arm. Charcoal on paper.

José Clemente Orozco came to Pomona College in 1930 to paint a mural, but what he left behind was a political statement, a challenge and an artistic legacy cloaked in myth and speculation. His imposing fresco of Prometheus has looked down on Frary Dining Hall ever since, and a current Pomona College Museum of Art exhibition--in honor of the 80th anniversary of the work--sheds light on the man behind the myth.

Paulette Barros ’11 and theory friction practice ’12 (née Jackson Brebnor), this year’s Graham “Bud” ’55 and Mary Ellen ’56 Kilsby interns at the Museum, researched the mural and curated the exhibit, which is built around two bodies of work: Orozco’s preparatory drawings and historical information about the origins of the mural and its effect on Pomona.

“Museum interns have the opportunity to experience a lot of different facets in museum work,” says Kathleen Howe, director of the Pomona College Museum of Art. “This year, theory and Paulette have had an accelerated immersion in planning and realizing an exhibition.”

While the Museum had already planned an exhibition for the 80th anniversary of Prometheus, it was the interns who gave the show its focus. Recognizing that they nor their fellow students knew much about the mural, Howe says they proposed an exhibition around “what they’d like to know…its Pomona history, its conservation and the student response to it.”

They dug through Museum archives, pored over old The Student Life articles and examined conservation work that has been done on the mural. “My favorite part of this process was searching through the archives and learning more about the history of Prometheus,” says Barros, an art history major who has interned at other museums. “There are so many details and facts that the students are unaware of, and myths that still circulate to this day."

Theory, a junior media studies major, says researching the mural, which drew inspiration from the 1910 Mexican Revolution, gave him “a lot more understanding of how art functions politically.” Before the project, he had thought making political statements through art were more recent phenomena. Prometheus showed him the political aspect of art goes deeper into the past.

One fact that surprised Barros was how student-driven the original project was. While Professor José Pijoan invited Orozco to campus to paint what would be the first U.S. mural by one of the Los Tres Grandes, the three great Mexican muralists (Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros), students helped to raise the money. Orozco also stayed in the dorms with students. While it is lost to history whether Orozco stayed in the dorms because it was cheaper or because of unspoken segregation in Claremont at the time, it is known that the students were only able to raise less than half the $2,000 fee promised, but Orozco still finished the mural.

One historical rumor put to rest was that trustees had forced Orozco to paint a sexless Prometheus. It is true that Orozco initially painted the god of fire without genitalia but he returned after three months to add the detail—only by this time, the plaster had dried on the fresco and so he painted it al secco (dry), which caused the painted area to fade over time.

This portion of the mural also caused controversy in 1961. When Frary, a males-only dining hall, was opened up to women students, the men protested, feeling it was inappropriate for females to dine under Prometheus in all his glory. The women protested right back and the mural--and the co-ed dining--was here to stay.

In addition to historical research, Barros and theory also created the exhibition itself, displaying historical records, photos--including a 1961 photo of the co-ed protests--and preparatory drawings that the College purchased from Orozco’s son in 2000.

“Through this process, I learned that creating an exhibit is a much more difficult and detailed process than I imagined,” says Barros. “First, we needed to create the overall themes presented in the exhibit and then use the visual materials to create a linear progression throughout the exhibit according to the themes. Theory and I wrote the text for each theme presented. We had a lot of liberties in the creation of the exhibit; we even mounted a lot of the works ourselves.

“Throughout this process, we both saw the exhibit come to live before our eyes.”

Additional programming for the exhibition included an American studies symposium with Professors Miguel Tinker Salas (history), Alma Martinez (theatre), Frances Pohl (art history) and Candida Jaquez (music, Scripps), and a presentation by Barros and theory. Both events took place during Art After Hours, a weekly event featuring extended Museum hours and arts-oriented programming. The Museum also offered Art After Hours patrons an 80th birthday cake for Prometheus featuring the artwork.

“I feel like most students do not have a lot of interaction with the mural, despite being exposed to it on a daily basis,” says Barros. “It remains a shadow in our lives. The only thing I want them to know is to respect it and understand its significance as a work of art.”

To learn more about the history of the Prometheus mural, you can visit the Museum Tuesday through Friday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition will be showing through Sunday, December 19. You can also visit the Museum website for more information.

Research for this article was performed by Ratna Kamath '11.