José Clemente Orozco’s “Prometheus” is well-known as Frary Dining Hall’s artistic showstopper, but hidden in its shadow is a second mural, one that deserves far more attention than anyone gives it.
This particular mural, “Genesis,” is often overlooked, overshadowed by Pomona College’s prized Orozco work and practically hidden by the building itself. Unless you exit from the southern doors of Frary, and look upwards as you descend the stairs, you’ll probably miss the shadowy black and white mural painted on the inside of the exterior wall.
“Genesis” is a complex, compelling work of art standing on its own. Viewing it within the context of Pomona and Orozco, or even the broader sweep of art history, can strengthen its artistic relevance. But perhaps what’s most important to consider are the work’s historical and religious sources, which share potent parallels with the world today.
Rico Lebrun, an Italian-American artist, painted “Genesis” in 1960. He trained as an artist in Italy, worked in stained glass and advertising in the U.S. and eventually returned to painting. After moving to Southern California in 1938, he helped with the animation of “Bambi” at Disney Studios, a role perhaps incongruous with the dark, often religious themes in his painting.
The American art scene in the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by abstract expressionism: the gestural, bold and seemingly spontaneous abstract art coming out of New York. Lebrun’s work fits neither into that camp nor the mostly decorative trends in Southern California at the time, which art historian Peter Selz described as “Disneyland taste.”
Lebrun’s enduring artistic references included Italian and Spanish masters like Michelangelo, Francisco Goya and Picasso. In “Genesis,” the emphasis on the physicality of the figures demonstrate the influence of Michelangelo, while the stark black and white palette reflects both Picasso’s masterful “Guernica” and Goya’s haunting Black Paintings.
Another significant work that should be placed in conversation with “Genesis” is the set of Goya’s etchings that belong to the Pomona College Museum of Art. The series includes “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” an “unsparingly horrific” depiction of war and famine in Spain.
Lebrun was also an admirer of Orozco; a large part of his proposal to paint a mural at Frary was spurred by the presence of “Prometheus.” As Marjorie L. Harth notes, “That Pomona College should own major paintings by these two artists, and that it should have commissioned them when it did, reflects the courage and farsightedness that mark enlightened patronage.”
Deciphering what’s going on in this mural is a little tricky — it’s painted in shadowy, monochromatic tones and unless it’s a bright day, the lack of lighting can make it unreadable. On top of that, the mural’s imagery blends biblical characters with events from the middle of the 20th century, requiring extra contextual knowledge to fully understand its message.
The mural is composed of several groups of intertwined bodies that fit within the arched shapes of Frary’s wall. One large figure dominates the center of “Genesis,” and on either side, two twisting columns of human forms reach up until they fill the lunettes, the crescent-shaped alcoves that touch the roof of the building.
The title “Genesis” comes from the first book of the Hebrew Bible (shared by Christians and Jews), which tells the story of the creation of the universe. Afterwards, though, things start getting bad, to put it bluntly: Adam and Eve, living in the paradisal Garden of Eden, are corrupted by the serpent and expelled by God from the garden. Human life is from then on full of strife, to the point where God is so full of grief and anger that God floods the earth, save for Noah and his family (and two of every animal) on an ark that Noah builds.
The mural showcases in harsh, brutal brushstrokes the pain that humankind suffers in Genesis: Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise; their son, Cain, who murders their other son, Abel; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were so full of evil that God annihilates them entirely; and Job, a man tested by God with the destruction of his family, property and health.
Lebrun drew explicit comparisons between the stories he was depicting and things that were happening in his own world. His representation of Sodom and Gomorrah in the upper right corner is based on a photo he had seen from a German concentration camp, and he referred to the figure in the upper left as “Hiroshima Job.” The Santa Ynez River flood in Mexico inspired the images of the biblical flood.
These events are decades old, but tragedies occur in every day and age. Our world right now has been rocked by the spread of COVID-19, which has brought suffering upon countless communities. It’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and we feel pain, as do the grasping, gasping, aching figures in “Genesis.”
In the center of the mural stands a tall man, reaching down to embrace a small child. It’s Noah after the flood. Out of all of the pain, Lebrun chose to center and emphasize this story from Genesis. Despite the flood that destroys all civilization, Noah and his ark survive, and are promised security and peace from God. It’s a story of destruction, but also of conclusive renewal and hope for a new world.
We’ve all been forced to leave our campus, a safe haven that can feel like the Garden of Eden for many students. This mural, although dark and somewhat disturbing, also represents hope — the assurance that despite today’s difficulties, we will survive this flood of uncertainty and instability to make it back, one day.
Frances Sutton PO ’21 is TSL’s art columnist. She is an art history major who enjoys sewing and attempting to convince people that her hometown of San Francisco is the best city in the world.