So many of our problems as a nation are due to the institutionalization of greed in our culture. Even in our Declaration of Independence, we are declared to have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Originally, the text read “Property” instead of “the pursuit of Happiness.”
So here we are, with the 21st century well under way, admiring billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, as well as self-declared billionaires (but not really) like Donald J. Trump. As a people, we still believe the rich are job creators, even when they get rich by sending American jobs overseas, in which case they could be regarded as job destroyers. In the meantime, we are becoming poorer as a nation, even while believing the opposite.
When José Clemente Orozco painted his famous murals at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library, he was commenting on the betrayal of ideals in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, which came hard on the heels of the Porfiriato, the stifling military dictatorship of Don Porfirio Díaz, which ran from 1876 to 1910. He also painted elsewhere on campus, the so-called “Hovey Murals,” which were so controversial that they were painted over for offending wealthy alumni donors.
Small wonder that they weren’t offended by the above panel from the Baker Library murals.
The wealthy are correct to regard the United States as the land of opportunity. This opportunity, however, comes at a cost. We are too ready to enthrone greed as an American virtue while treating the American poor as somehow losers in the game of life.
In the 20th century, Mexico produced three great muralists: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. On other occasions, I have written about the influence on me of the Orozco frescoes at Dartmouth College. Sometimes, I think that my interest in Latin America began in the Reserve Room of Baker Library, where the frescoes were located.
Los Angeles has only a reconstruction of David Alfaro Siqueiros’s América Tropical, which was created in 1932 at its present location on Olvera Street. Unfortunately, Siqueiros’s revolutionary message angered LA business leaders, who had the mural painted over.
Today, the fresco is restored—but, alas, only in black and white. Below is what the original looked like:
It took a quarter century for the Getty Conservation Institute to restore the image which was obliterated by layers of white paint. You can read about it here. When the Covid-19 outbreak comes to an end, you can view the restoration in person.
Quetzalcoatl Mural at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library
During the four years I was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I spent many hours studying in the reserve room of Baker Library where, between 1932 and 1934, José Clemente Orozco painted a striking series of murals named “The Epic of American Civilization.” One of the images (above) was of the god Quetzalcoatl (or Plumed Serpent) crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatán. It was largely due to Quetzalcoatl’s yellow beard in Aztec iconography that misled Moctezuma to believe that Hernán Cortés was Quetzalcoatl returned to the Aztecs. We all know how that turned out….
Orozco also did other murals at a dining hall at Dartmouth, but they were removed because they were thought to be Communist, and the Patricians in control at Dartmouth were aghast that the Mexican visitor would abuse their hospitality. (A similar thing happened in Los Angelist, where Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a mural called “América Tropical” that was painted over for similar reasons.)
I love Orozco’s work. At one point, I even journeyed to Guadalajara to see more of his work, such as the image of Miguel Hidalgo below:
Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco featuring Miguel Hidalgo (leader of the Mexican War of Independence), Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace), in the historic Center of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
Censorship of a great work of art because one does not believe in the political philosophy espoused by the artist is, to my mind, barbaric. Only in the United States is there a simultaneous attraction/repulsion response to Orozco’s emphatic mural style. Any attempt to paint over his work in Mexico would cause a bloody riot. But then, Mexico does not swing as far to the right as our country does.
Dartmouth College was the beginning of many things in my life. One of the most influential was the Reserve Room on the ground floor of Dartmouth’s Baker Library. On three sides was a magnificent sequence of frescoes by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) which began with the invasion of Mexico by the Conquistadores and ended up with the mess that Mexico was in during the 1930s. One of the most shocking images was the one above of the skeletoid academics giving birth to a baby skeleton.
These frescoes influenced me so much that I would study or even just hang out in the Reserve Room just to imbibe the atmosphere of Orozco’s powerful political murals. It was no accident that the first vacation I took on my own, nine years after my graduation, was a visit to Mayan ruins in Yucatán. Over the next seventeen years, I was to go to Mexico eight times, spending as much as a month on each visit.
José Clemente Orozco
During those visits, my eyes turned further south. I would have loved to go from Yucatán to Belize and on to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala. At that time, however, the man in charge was Efraín Ríos Montt, a murderous dog who was responsible for the massacre, rape, and torture of thousands of indigenous people; and the U.S. State Department did not recommend that Americans vacation in Guatemala during his presidency.
Around then, Paul Theroux published The Old Patagonian Express (1979), about taking trains from Boston as far south in the Americas as one could go. I vowed that I would eventually make it to South America, and I did. Since 2006, I visited Argentina (three times!), Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. An despite Mexico’s continuing problem with narcotraficantes, I would not mind going to Yucatán and Chiapas again.
José Guadalupe Posada was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in 1852.During the Mexican Revolution. By the time of the Mexican Revolution, of which the above engraving shows a scene, he was poor despite his immense talent as a folk artist. He died in 1913, but not before having influenced the great muralist José Clemente Orozco. It was Orozco’s frescoes in the Reserve Room of Dartmouth College’s Baker Library that influenced me in my own visual tastes.
Posada is probably best known for his calaveras, images of skeletons savagely satirizing life under Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. Not surprisingly, most of these cavorting skeletons have become associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead, or All Souls’ Day, on November 2. On this day, families have picnics by the graves of their loved ones who have passed on.
I thought Posada would be a good artist for Halloween as well.