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11 / The Urban Experience

The Working Class (detail)
The Working Class (detail)
Artist / Origin José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949)
Date 1926
Material Fresco
Medium: Painting
Location Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City, Mexico
Credit © ARS, NY/ SOMAAP, Mexico City. Courtesy of Schalkwijk/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Anna Indych-LópezAssociate Professor of Art History, City University of New York

The Working Class (detail)

» José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949)

expert perspective

Anna Indych-López Anna Indych-López Associate Professor of Art History, City University of New York

The Mexican muralist movement began as a result of a broader cultural movement after the Mexican Revolution, which was the first social revolution of the twentieth century. Around 1921, there is a Minister of Education who decided that he wanted to renovate the educational program of the country and part of this broader federal program was a program to create murals, specifically around the nation in rural sites, but then also in the nation’s capital, in Mexico City. And the major murals of this period were the murals that decorated the Ministry of Education itself, in the center of Mexico City. Most of these artists were in Europe, engaged in the various currents of modernism at that time, in the early 1920s, when they were summoned back to Mexico City and asked to paint images of the nation to forge an image of the nation for the purposes of this cultural renaissance, as it is sometimes called. There’s a tendency to lump them together, to group them as los tres grandes, “the three great ones”—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—or to call it the Mexican Muralist Movement without distinguishing between these individual artists. And they had different visions, different styles, different trainings, different politics. But the one common feature about all three is that they all created a kind of hybrid style that mixed various different sources—European modernism, Pre-Colombian art, folk art, popular art, colonial art, and Old Master traditions of Europe as well. I think that’s an important thing to emphasize because there’s a tendency to see the muralists often as simply social realists, when in fact they’re not. And they’re speaking in a language, in a visual language that is very modern, but yet accessible to a public because it’s figurative and legible. So in the Mexican murals, you will see updated, kind of updated history painting. No one is spared the wrath of Orozco’s brush.

So he stays away from specific political allegiances and instead, I would say, he’s a humanist, and, of course, that is a political position in and of itself. It’s just that he doesn’t align with any specific party the way that someone like Diego Rivera or David Alfaro Siqueiros would.

The National Preparatory School trained the future generations—the diplomats, the ambassadors, the intellectual elites, the political, social elite of Mexico. The original murals that José Clemente Orozco created for the National Preparatory School, we know that students at the school reacted violently against them. And there was a kind of outcry. And we have images, photographs of graffiti on them, on the murals, where students actually scratched and drew upon the murals because they disagreed with the content. And it’s precisely for that reason that at a certain point in the mural process he’s asked to stop. And so, his work was cut off. But then because of several cultural leaders and figures who advocated on his behalf, he was allowed to return and finish the cycle.” 

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