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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Urban Experience Art: The Working Class (detail)

» José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949)

The Working Class (detail)

The Working Class (detail)
Artist / Origin: José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949)
Region: Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Caribbean
Date: 1926
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
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

In the 1920s, the post-revolutionary Mexican government under the leadership of President Alvaro Obregón called on expatriate artists to return to Mexico.

Guided by the belief that art could help restore Mexico’s national identity, the government rewarded these artists with major commissions for the decoration of public buildings. The person leading the effort to implement this agenda was Obregón’s minister of Education, José Vasconcelos.

Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco—often called los tres grandes (“the big three”) of the Mexican mural movement—were all involved in the early mural projects sponsored by the new government. The three were committed to the notion that art could be an instrument of mass communication and used their murals to offer social and political commentary on Mexico’s present as well as its past. While Rivera and Siqueiros continued to produce European-style easel paintings alongside their grand-scale wall paintings, Orozco devoted himself entirely to the latter.

Orozco is perhaps best known for the series of frescoes he created at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) in Mexico City. Work there by Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, and other artists in the period between 1922 and 1924 had elicited a largely negative response. The artists’ harsh views of the privileged classes did not sit well with the social elite who still dominated at institutions such as the Preparatory School. By 1926 when Orozco came back to do his second cycle, however, political and social circumstances had changed, as had the audience for his work.

Many of Orozco’s 1926 murals combine Christian and socialist imagery in expressions of pathos for the plight of Mexico’s poor workers. Among these is The Working Class, located on the school’s third floor. Set against a simple, almost abstract background, a line of monumental workers with stooped backs and bowed heads is the primary focus of the image. The laborers, most of whom are faceless, represent the masses who had suffered political and social disappointment after many years of violent revolution in the country. Orozco’s sensitivity to the dignity of the workers offered his new, more “popular” audience an image with which they could identify.

Expert Perspective:
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.”

Additional Resources

Ades, Dawn. Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Craven, David. Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910–1990, 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

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