"Orozco's 'Prometheus' mural provides food for thought at Pomona College dining hall," by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Multiple times per day, students and faculty troop into the Pomona College dining room to eat in sight of a great work of art.
“Prometheus” is a fresco painted in 1930 by Jose Clemente Orozco. With Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Orozco is considered one of the three great Mexican muralists. Occupying an arched niche at the far end of the room, “Prometheus” depicts a naked male stealing fire from Mount Olympus while the masses react.
It had been years since I’d seen the mural, but it’s been on my mind due to the current Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA series of exhibitions that explore Los Angeles’ connection to Latin America. The Getty Foundation gave the college $275,000 to research, ponder and document “Prometheus,” an ironic turn given that the college originally shorted Orozco on his $2,500 fee.
Four artists from Mexico were commissioned to draw inspiration from “Prometheus” for a show at the Pomona College Museum of Art through Dec. 16. Even though Orozco’s fresco is at the center of the whole exhibit, I fear the poor fellow has been overlooked. There are no events specifically around him.
Still, the dining hall’s hours are better than the museum’s. It’s OK to walk in, or to knock if the door is closed; a sign at the cashier’s station notes that if you’re simply there to see “Prometheus,” to say so.
On the other hand, the all-you-can-eat lunch, at $14, isn’t bad.
I met my art-lovin’ friends Mike and Stephanie at Frary for lunch recently. I’ve been reading about “Prometheus,” listening to lectures about it and quizzing people about it for months, thanks to museum opportunities.
Isa Carrillo, one of the visiting Mexican artists, told me she’d rushed to the cafeteria to see the mural, although she said she ultimately preferred Orozco’s more subtle preparatory sketches, most of which are on display at the museum. Rita Ponce de Leon, another of the artists, said the overall impression of the dining students, the room and the image created a powerful effect. As for the mural itself, she said: “I don’t know if I like it or not.”
As we ate nachos and dim sum, Frary’s unusual pairing of foods for the day, Mike and Stephanie listened to me dropping knowledge like Prometheus.
The dining hall is quite a space, with a soaring, arched ceiling, dark wood contrasting with cream walls. Architect Sumner Spaulding designed it in 1929, and initially a tapestry hung at the far end above the fireplace. Then Spaulding and Joseph Pijoan, an art history professor, discussed having a mural there instead.
Pijoan was put in touch with Orozco, who had found mural commissions in Mexico drying up due to changes in the political climate. He agreed to head north to Claremont, arriving March 21 and finishing June 6. (A solar eclipse took place that April 28.) The 46-year-old lived in Clark Dormitory, ate in Frary and used students as models for some figures. Students had raised a reputed $300 toward the commission.
Details about the commission are somewhat murky, as there’s not much of a paper trail. Some accounts credit Pijoan with suggesting the theme of Prometheus, the deity in Greek mythology who stole the fire of knowledge from the gods and gave it to mankind. Orozco had studied Greek mythology, so the theme was right in his wheelhouse.
He painted on wet plaster, a process known as a fresco. The main panel is 25 by 37 feet, but there are also two smaller side panels in the niche and a ceiling panel. If you’re close enough to see all four pieces at once, the main image tends to disappear above you.
“It’s big, it’s bombastic, it’s colorful, it’s painterly,” said Mary Coffey, an art history professor at Dartmouth who specializes in Mexican muralists and who helped organize Pomona’s exhibition. “If you get too close, you can’t hold the image.”
Other than the nudity, about which more in a moment, Prometheus may seem perfect for the college environment as a bringer of enlightenment. Yet it’s an ambivalent, defiant image. Like the apple in Eden, is knowledge necessarily a boon to mankind?
Some in the crowd look grateful for Prometheus’ sacrifice, while others appear indifferent, fearful or angry. Prometheus himself looks pained, and he hasn’t even tried the cafeteria. One foot seems to use the bottom of the frame for leverage, while his arms press against the top of the arch. He might remind you of Samson pushing against the pillars.
Orozco, who may have identified with Prometheus, seems to say that it’s up to the masses to accept or reject the gift — or his mural.
An impressed Spaulding, the architect, told Time magazine that his building might collapse if Prometheus were removed. L.A. Times art critic Arthur Millier raved about this “masterpiece.” Jackson Pollock trekked to Claremont and called the fresco “the greatest painting in North America.”
Yet there were criticisms that the Mexican artist had trampled on the Greek myth. Administrators were not enthusiastic. Orozco may have felt pressure not to render the nude man in his full anatomical glory.
Orozco, in fact, returned in the summer of 1930 and, saying he regretted not having completed the figure, added a few awkward lines. But Prometheus still looks a lot like a Ken doll.
Once the dining hall went coed in the late 1960s, the figure’s inadequacy became an issue for some. In incidents in the 1970s, furtive students tried to improve the painting, covered him with a codpiece and taped up a breadstick. A punning student newspaper article in 1995 calling for Prometheus to be rescued from “genderless shame” is made up almost entirely of double entendres.
The fresco was cleaned and restored by professionals and an education campaign seems to have impressed itself upon succeeding generations of students, who treat the mural respectfully, or at least don’t pin breadsticks to it.
Fascinatingly, a 1956 conservation attempt was made by art students — among them future actor Richard Chamberlain — who cleaned the mural by wiping it down with Wonder Bread. Art conservation has made great strides since the 1950s, and I believe today the preferred method is avocado toast.
That brought me to the end of my mini-lecture. I should have pre-recorded it and handed my friends earphones, like at an art museum. But of course we were in a college dining hall, albeit one with a unique ambience and unusual conversation piece.
“It is,” Stephanie said with a giggle, “a good mural to look at while eating nachos.”