José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus
Although little known in the United States at the time, Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco would become famous as one of Los Tres Grandes—the three great Mexican muralists: Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Prometheus, painted in 1930, was Orozco's first major mural in this country and the first mural in the United States by one of Los Tres Grandes. The Mexican mural movement’s expansion beyond Mexico can be said to have begun at Pomona College.The idea for a mural in Frary Hall was first suggested by its architect, Sumner Spaulding, shortly after the completion of the dining hall. José Pijoán, Pomona College professor of Hispanic civilization and art history, urged his students to take on this challenge and suggested they commission Orozco. Pomona students arranged for Orozco to come to Claremont, where he lived for two months in a campus dormitory while working on the fresco. Prometheus still presides over Frary, and today, over 80 years later, students experience Orozco’s work daily, and visitors see it in its original setting.
José Clemente Orozco was born on November 28, 1883, in Zapotlán el Grande (now Ciudad Guzmán), Jalisco, Mexico. He spent most of his artistic career living and working in Mexico City, New York City, and Guadalajara. In addition to Pomona College’s Prometheus, Orozco completed several monumental mural works at sites in Mexico and the United States, including the National Preparatory School in Mexico City; the New School for Social Research in New York City; the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; the University of Guadalajara, the Government Palace, and the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara; and the Gabino Ortíz Library in Jiquilpan, Michoacán, Mexico.
Orozco’s artistic training developed out of his experiences as a student in Mexico and as an illustrator for independent newspapers. After initially pursuing agronomy and cartography, he enrolled at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City to study architecture. Although he had previously studied drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts of San Carlos in 1890, he did not formally enroll at the academy to study painting until 1907.
In 1910, during the Mexican Revolution, Orozco drew cartoons that lampooned the political turmoil for publications such as The Vanguard, a revolutionary newspaper edited by Mexican writer and painter Dr. Atl. Even after Orozco painted his first murals in 1923 at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, as part of an initiative led by the Minister of Public Education José Vasconcelos, he continued to contribute drawings and caricatures to the daily press. Murals and cartoons featured equally in his exploration of art that could communicate to a wide public. Both his early political engagement and his fine art training may be seen in his mature work, which frequently featured monumentality, allegorical figures, and commentary on race, labor, and institutions.
Orozco’s vision of the mythical figure of Prometheus as an allegory for art intended for a broad audience highlights the ethos of post-revolutionary Mexican muralism as a means to transform society. In Mexican muralism, art practice was associated with the continuing struggle to build a nation. The muralists viewed their art as a weapon for social justice and civic engagement. The work of Orozco and his peers is a model for a politically engaged life as an artist.
By the end of the 1920s, the utopian experimental phase of mural art in Mexico had eroded, and public commissions became rare. The shifting political climate and subsequent lack of artistic opportunity led many artists to leave Mexico in search of new patrons and opportunities. Orozco was part of that exodus. He arrived in New York City in 1927 and spent the next seven years in the United States. As he immersed himself in the contemporary art scene and moved in intellectual circles, he also executed a number of major mural projects. Prometheus (1930) is the first of those.
On his return to Mexico, Orozco found renewed federal and municipal patronage. Back in Mexico he turned to subjects from Mexican history and allegories of humanity’s ongoing struggle for freedom and justice. Between 1936 and 1939, the artist transformed the architectural surfaces of the auditorium at the University of Guadalajara, the stairs at the Government Palace, and the chapel of the Hospicio Cabañas into dramatic visualizations of conquest, independence, and modernity. He also completed murals in Mexico City and helped found the National College in Mexico City. The Government of Mexico awarded him the National Prize for Visual Arts; his work was featured in the Palace of Fine Arts “National Retrospective Exhibition” in 1947. Orozco died on September 7, 1949 and was interred in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men in the capital.
Prometheus symbolizes a significant moment of interaction and exchange between Los Angeles and Latin America. It was almost immediately acclaimed a masterpiece. Critics noted the skill with which Orozco scaled the composition to its architectural environment. In a Time magazine interview, architect Spaulding was asked how he liked the mural. He responded, “I feel as though the building would fall down if the fresco were removed.” Later Jackson Pollock proclaimed it “the greatest painting in North America.”
As his theme, Orozco chose the myth of the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, an act for which he was condemned to eternal punishment. Fire represents enlightenment and knowledge and, for many, marks the beginning of human civilization. Orozco felt the subject fitting for an educational institution. The mural celebrates the aspiration of art to illuminate while highlighting the inherent tensions between creative and destructive forces.
Orozco’s mural confronts viewers with an ambiguous depiction of the ancient Greek myth as a modern allegory. Taking fire from Mount Olympus and offering it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is simultaneously praised and scorned by the recipients of his gift. Orozco, whose work was still largely unknown in 1930, personally identified with the myth of Prometheus; he believed his efforts to enlighten were also unappreciated. The symbolism of fire plays a significant role in Orozco’s personal history as well. He lost his left hand at the age of 21, while making fireworks to celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day. In the mural, Orozco shows the Titan reaching for the fire, intent on bringing it to earth. His right hand disappears into the flames, echoing Orozco’s own loss.
In the ceiling panel, stylized flames emerge from an abstract composition of geometric forms. This is often 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 wall, in Destruction of Mythology, the Greek deities Zeus, Hera, and Io look on in horror at Prometheus’s act; on the east wall, in the panel Strangulation of Mythology, aging male centaurs and a female creature are 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.”
Prometheus reflects the tensions in Orozco’s practice, the uneasy balance of his commitment to a political message through public art and the expression of private agency. The conflation of the Prometheus myth with Orozco’s personal history further highlights the conflicts inherent in Orozco’s role as an agent for social change and as an introspective creative visionary. These tensions are deliberately unresolved in his mural.
Orozco worked in the old western mural tradition, called buon fresco or true fresco. This is a demanding and unforgiving technique in which pigments are mixed into water and applied to wet plaster. It requires the artist to work quickly and accurately, applying pigment before the plaster dries. Once the plaster and pigment have dried, adjustments cannot be made. Using this technique, Orozco completed a new section of the mural each day. Looking carefully at the mural, one can find the slight delineations that indicate each day’s work. The surface of the fresco is vulnerable and, once damaged, difficult to restore to its original appearance. Since its completion there have been several projects to clean and stabilize the painting. In 1982, conservators discovered that bricks lining the chimney behind the central figure had begun to crumble, endangering the entire wall. In a complex 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.
In 2002, Pomona College acquired seventeen preparatory sketches for the Prometheus mural in Frary Hall. Owned by the artist’s family since 1930, the drawings include five compositional sketches and twelve figure studies. Their addition to the permanent collection was the culmination of nearly two decades of negotiation between Orozco’s children and the Pomona College Museum of Art.
Correlating closely with the version Orozco ultimately painted, the sketches reveal the artist’s explorations of composition and anatomy, evidence of his formal academic training. The sketches demonstrate Orozco's thought process as he prepared to execute this complex, multi-figure painting. His professors at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City had stressed the importance of classical training and introduced him to the power of allegory. The nude figure plays a central role in this fresco, from the heroic figure of Prometheus to the individuals that form the masses below. The fully fleshed out forms of the mural realize the arms, torsos, and compositional solutions worked out in the sketches.