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.