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Student Curators Uncover "Secret" Past of Orozco Mural "Prometheus" on 80th Anniversary

"Prometheus" in Frary Dining Hall

"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.

Editor's note: We wrote an article about this exhibition in December 2010. The Museum has decided to extend the exhibition so that more may view the fascinating history of Prometheus.

The Prometheus mural at Pomona College was the first in the U.S. painted by José Clemente Orozco, was one of “Los tres grandes” of the Mexican muralist movement, along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Completed in 1930, the imposing and vibrant fresco challenged accepted notions that murals should be pleasant, graceful and impersonal. Today the large-scale work continues to preside over the College’s Frary Dining Hall, from the great north wall.

Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the ground-breaking mural is “Stealing Fire,” a student-curated exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art, which sheds light on how the artist came to Pomona College, his relationship with students, and the relationship between art and politics.

Paulette Barros '11 and theory friction practice (née Jackson Brebnor '12), this year’s 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.

While the Museum had already planned an exhibition for the 80th anniversary of Prometheus, the interns gave the show its focus, proposing an exhibit 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."

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 that 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 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 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.

“Stealing Fire” will be on display at the Pomona College Museum of Art  (330 N. College Ave., Claremont) through April 10. There is no admission charge for the Museum which is open: Tues.-Fri., 12-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. for “Art After Hours” with live music entertainment; and Sat.-Sun., 1-5 p.m. Information: (909) 621-8283 or www.pomona.edu/museum.

Contacts

Jessica Wimbley
Museum Coordinator
Pomona College Museum of Art
(909) 607-7543

Images available