If you walk into Frary Dining Hall any given night and overhear students talking about “Prometheus,” you’re probably listening to some puzzled jokes about having to eat dinner below a painting of a giant, naked, penis-less man.
What you’re unlikely to hear is any sort of recognition of what is a true masterpiece. This is a mural painted in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco, one of Los Tres Grandes, the three most important artists of the Mexican muralist movement along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. He is an indispensable figure in 2oth century North American art history, and “Prometheus” is one of his most notable works and his first major mural in the United States.
Some fun facts about “Prometheus”:
- Orozco purposefully kept a penis off of “Prometheus” due to well-reported community disapproval at the time of the nude subject matter.
- Jackson Pollock, the famous abstract expressionist (the splatter guy) once described “Prometheus” as “the greatest painting in North America.”
- Prometheus is the Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the humans, a crime for which Zeus chained him to a rock while an eagle ate out his liver every day for eternity.
- Orozco lived in a dorm at Pomona College for two months while he worked on the mural, after being commissioned by Pomona students and José Pijoán, a professor of Hispanic civilization and art history.
- “Prometheus” is a fresco, a type of traditional (and very difficult) mural technique in which pigments are applied to wet plaster.
Orozco’s work, along with that of the other Mexican muralists, was coming out of the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and was radically different than American art at the time. During and after the Great Depression in the 1930s, much of the contemporary art in America was sponsored by government programs like the Works Progress Administration — a part of the New Deal — and was generally idealistic and reassuring, often depicting scenes of idyllic American life. (The post office in Claremont actually has a mural of this genre: “California Landscape” by Milford Zornes in 1937.)
In contrast, “Prometheus” is bold and violently colorful, painted with loose, visible brushwork in deep reds and oranges, shadowy blacks and a few spots of cool bright blue. Orozco chose to represent the first part of the Prometheus story, depicting the hero grasping powerfully towards the heavens to bring fire — an allegory for knowledge — to the humans below.
The eponymous figure’s huge body fills the foreground from floor to ceiling, and many smaller humans reach diagonally upwards behind him. There is undeniable energy in all the muscular, corporal movement, and the tension is heightened by the additional scenes on the walls to the left and right of mythological horror and destruction at the titan’s act.
Other important Mexican murals in America in the years following “Prometheus” include Orozco’s mural at Dartmouth College, “The Epic of American Civilization” (1932-34), which is shockingly radical for the East Coast school — its images of death and skeletons are overtly critical of academia.
Another is “Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism,” painted by Siqueiros in 1932 on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. It depicts an indigenous person crucified, and was almost completely destroyed by neglect and abuse at the hands of scandalized residents, until it was restored in 2012.
Orozco and other Mexican artists are getting a spotlight in the art world at the moment: The Whitney Museum of American Art’s current exhibition “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945” features “Prometheus” as a half-scale reproduction, as well as many works by Siqueiros, Rivera, other Mexican artists and the American artists they influenced.
And this upcoming fall, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is presenting “Diego Rivera’s America,” an exhibition which celebrates the arrival of “Pan American Unity” to the museum, the remarkable mural painted by Rivera in 1940 and recently moved from its prior location at the City College of San Francisco.
For many students, Frary’s “Prometheus” is more likely to creep them out than impress. But my intention with this article is not at all to be judgmental of my fellow students. I myself didn’t fully understand the importance of “Prometheus” until I took a course on American art during my sophomore year — I was one of the many students who often look past the mural.
“Prometheus” can easily blend into the landscape at Pomona College. Perhaps because it’s so integrated into our daily lives — on the wall in the place where we go to eat meals — it fades into the background almost immediately.
Maybe Pomona can do better. Outside of the Pomona College Museum of Art or the art history department, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a professor or administrator even mention our school’s most influential work of art.
In 2017, the Pomona museum’s exhibition was “Prometheus 2017: Four Artists from Mexico Revisit Orozco.” It was great, but hundreds of new students have come to the college since then. The fix could be simple: The college or the museum could sponsor casual annual talks in Frary inviting students to look at, observe and analyze the mural.
There are so many facets to the issues “Prometheus” brings up. Beyond the artistic value and powerful symbolism of the work itself, the mural is also a visual representation of the deep historical, cultural and political significance of our location in Southern California, so close to Mexico. Orozco’s work has given Pomona a rich opportunity for interdisciplinary study, perfectly in line with the ideals of the liberal arts.
Orozco once said that “The highest, the most logical, the purest and strongest form of painting is the mural. It is also the most disinterested form, for it cannot be made a matter of private gain; it cannot be hidden away for the benefit of a certain privileged few. It is for the people. It is for ALL.”
It is a shame (and somewhat ironic) that Pomona fails to live up to Orozco’s words, especially considering what “Prometheus” embodies: our quest for knowledge. No one should pass through Pomona, or Claremont, without learning at least a little bit about this stunning, monumental work.
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.