Orozco Revisited Through Prometheus Mural

Pomona College’s Frary Dining Hall is many things: a dining establishment, a place of meeting, a space for studying—and a museum. While students catch up and grab a meal, a
masterpiece watches from above.

José Clemente Orozco’s mural Prometheus is often overlooked. Many students forget about the mural as it becomes a consistent part of the background in their Frary experiences, and those who notice it tend to focus on its menial details. 

“The only thing that people can talk about this painting is the lack of ‘phallacy,'” Marley Breindel CM ’16 said. “The painting is obviously about more than that, but literally the only conversation that I’ve ever had with anyone is based around sexuality, which is not the point of the painting in the first place.”

Representatives from the Pomona College Museum of Art hope to change that, though, with the introduction of “Orozco in Focus,” a new series of lectures by prominent national and international scholars examining Orozco’s artistic, social and political significance. The series is supported by the Janet Inskeep Benton ’79 Fund for Museum Programming, and presented in collaboration with Pomona faculty members and departmental partners.

“Orozco in Focus” is introduced in conjunction with the museum’s independent research for the projected 2017 “Prometheus 1930/2017,” an exhibition supported by a grant from the Getty Foundation. The preceding lectures are meant to serve as a foundation, each building upon the previous discussions and culminating in the highly anticipated exhibition in three years. Terri Geis, the curator of academic programs at Pomona College Museum of Art, looks forward to the continuation of the project both on and off campus.

“[The lectures] are inspired by the un-admired mural surrounded by
otherwise absorbed students,” Geis said. “They’re a means of highlighting Orozco’s work.” 

Alejandro Anreus, an Associate Professor of Art History and Latin American Studies at William Patterson University, spoke at Frary Nov. 13 in the first of
many lectures to come. Part of Pomona’s weekly event “Art After Hours,” Anreus traced Orozco’s stylistic shifts, misunderstood politics and
view of history and social expressionism.

Dartmouth College professor Mary Coffey will give the series’ second lecture Feb. 6, exploring Orozco’s relationship with history, myth and the public. An associate professor of art history, Coffey specializes in the history of modern Mexican visual culture, with an emphasis on Mexican muralists and the politics of exhibition. She gives public lectures and tours of Orozco murals in the library and is researching for a monograph on Orozco’s Epic of American Civilization. 

Anreus first
enlightened students and community members with the history of Orozco, a man he described as “pessimistic,” with small green eyes and thick spectacles. The “comfortably unattractive” artist, Diego Riviera and David Siqueiro compose Los Tres
Grandes,
a group many refer to as the three leading Mexican muralists of all time. 

“He was a painter with an intensity of drawing different than anything ever seen,” Anreus said.

After losing his hand in a gunpowder incident, Orozco created several monumental narrative paintings, including Prometheus and Birth of Education, which is on display at Dartmouth College. 

Although the
lecture did not focus on Prometheus itself, Anreus did illuminate its importance in
portraying the style of Orozco. The neoclassical mural depicts a nude male hero taking fire from the Gods to give to humanity. Completely alone in the gesture, the hero, and with it the piece, represent sacrifice. Through the painting, Orozco provides a commentary on how to change the evils of civilization, according to Anreus. 

Many students in attendance were interested in learning about the art that they see every day in Frary. Students were not the only attendees, however; the event attracted an unusually wide demographic, including engineers, teachers and historians. 

“There were way more
adults, senior citizens and off-campus guests than I would have originally
thought,” Katie Shearer SC ’17 said. ” It was clearly a larger turnout than the event’s hosts were expecting
as the small venue was hard-pressed to fit everyone.”

The range of
attendees listened as Anreus narrated Orozco’s life, depicting his painting’s
political and cultural connotations. Between his descriptions, Anreus paused to explain his fascination with the Mexican muralist. 

“[Orozco’s work] did something to me,” he said. “It moved me.”

Each of Orozco’s paintings is unique, with styles ranging from baroque to neoclassical and political leanings ranging from communist to anarchist. Regardless, all of his work reveals turbulent images of rebellion. Shearer said she was able to get more from Orozco’s mural after listening to Anreus’ commentary, realizing its various implications at a much deeper level. 

She said she appreciated the professor’s “points about
the contradictions within the art and Orozco’s ability to expose political,
racial and social dilemmas through his art.” 

According to Anreus, eliciting thought was exactly Orozco’s intent. 

“He wanted us to walk
away meaningfully disturbed, our conscience in flames like Orozco’s Man on Fire,” Anreus said. 

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