September 19th, 2007
José Clemente Orozco
Orozco: Man of Fire

Art is knowledge at the service of emotion.
-José Clemente Orozco

The life of Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), a life filled with drama, adversity, and triumph, is one of the great stories of the modern era. Despite poverty, childhood rheumatic fever that damaged his heart and an explosion in his youth that cost him his left hand, Orozco persisted in his wish to become an artist. He experienced the carnage and duplicity of the Mexican Revolution, the hardship following the New York stock market crash in 1929, and rising fascism in Europe during his only trip there in 1932, and emerged with an aesthetic and moral vision unparalleled in twentieth century painting.

A taciturn individualist, highly sensitive and utterly inept at self-promotion, Orozco had a sharp tongue and mordant sense of humor. Described by a contemporary as “the only tragic poet America has produced,” Orozco was first and foremost a public artist whose greatest achievements were the murals he created not for individual patrons, but for the whole of society. Yet, in comparison with his colleague and rival Diego Rivera, until recently the name of this pre-eminent public artist was little known to the public. Orozco’s work was marginalized as complex and controversial, while Orozco the man has been considered as something of an enigma. Who was this solitary figure who spent years alone on scaffolds creating works that challenge both social norms and the art establishment?

Born in Zapotlan el Grande to a middle-class family that fell on hard times, Orozco was shaped at the outset of his career by the experience of ten years of civil war that gripped Mexico during the second decade of this century. He was twenty-seven when the Revolution began, thirty-four when he left Mexico for the United States for the first time in 1917. Some measure of the brutality he witnessed during those years is conveyed in his autobiography:

People grew used to killing, to the most pitiless egotism, to the glutting of the sensibilities, to naked bestiality. … In the world of politics it was the same, war without quarter, struggle for power and wealth. … Underneath it all, subterranean intrigues went on among the friends of today and the enemies of tomorrow, resolved, when the time came, upon mutual extermination.

Haunted by the savagery and treachery of this period, Orozco’s idealism took a resolutely apolitical form. He saw concepts of race and nationality and dogmas of political and religious salvation as idols that corrupt understanding and prevent the emancipation of the human spirit. Only by throwing off the shackles of creeds and prejudices that have enslaved humankind to authoritarian purposes, he believed, can genuine harmony of individual expression and social purpose come into being.

Under-appreciated as an artist in his native Mexico until late in his career, Orozco spent a total of ten years in the United States. He created four major murals here (at Pomona College, the New School for Social Research, Dartmouth College, and the Museum of Modern Art), along with hundreds of easel paintings and graphic works that challenged U.S. stereotypes of Mexican art. Despite episodes of censorship and periods of financial deprivation, Orozco became a pioneer of the public arts movement of the 1930s and 40s. Isamu Noguchi, Ben Shahn, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, and Jacob Lawrence were among the American artists influenced by his expressionist style. In the 1960s and 70s, Orozco’s work helped inspire a new generation of Chicano and African American muralists to reinvent public art within their communities. His legacy continues today among contemporary artists on both sides of the border.

Orozco created major frescoes in Mexico after his return there in 1934, including the magnificent cycle with which he covered the interior walls of the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara in 1939. The immense nave, encompassing a series of arched panels and semi-circular ceiling vaults, provided a dramatic space for Orozco to explore the interplay of indigenous and European forces within modern-day Mexico. At the center of the nave, sixty meters above the floor, his majestic Man of Fire ascends into the cupola of what has become known as the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas.”

The last time Orozco returned to the U.S. was in 1945. In the throes of midlife crisis at the relatively late age of 62, he told a friend, “I need to do it to renew myself.” But the much-anticipated creative renewal did not materialize, and after months of struggle and soul searching, Orozco returned home. In his final years, Orozco continued to climb the scaffolding, although his damaged heart forced him to stop and catch his breath every few steps. He completed his last fresco less than a month before he died in his sleep of heart failure at the age of 65.

A key to understanding Orozco’s work is an awareness of the relation between the artist’s passionate idealism and his pessimism. Spain’s greatest filmmaker, the late Luis Buñuel, declared that “man is never free, yet he fights for what he can never be, and that is tragic.” Orozco’s sense of the human condition was based on a similar conviction of tragic impasse. “To have a tragic vision in the Americas is extremely difficult,” says Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, “because we were founded as the Brave New World of happiness, the great utopia. So when a writer like Faulkner breaks through the optimism of the United States, or a painter like Orozco breaks through the promise of Mexico of the New World, it is a very striking event.” Through his art Orozco shared his trauma and his anger, which he insisted over and over, in many forms, is our trauma and should be our anger. “Painting,” Orozco believed, “assails the mind. It persuades the heart.”

–Jacquelynn Baas

For more information, and to download a study guide, visit the filmmaker’s Web site.

  • blake

    i believe this artist is very very wonderful..and im pretty sure im the only person who commented on this essay about his great life..

  • Omar

    I think he was a brilliant man aswell. He is my favorite out of the three “Gigantes”.

  • que

    que que que

  • Jonathan varela

    I am proud to be a Latino American and artist knowing that this brilliant yet troubled artist created such beautiful and violent expressions of our one race ,the human race

  • rebecca

    This was a wonderful doc. I was trying to fold laundry and this program stopped me in my tracks. I even caught myself a couple times with my jaw having literally dropped. The music and the editing were beautifully done. I was not familiar with Orozco, but I found myself wanting to go on trips specifically to seek out his murals (although all I’ve done so far is check out a library book about him). Orozco’s contributions remind me that there is some art that really is absolutely vital. Why he’s not better known is beyond me.

  • Cody

    I THINK THAT HE IS A GREAT ARTIST AND SHOULD BE TREATED AS SUCH

  • the beast

    this artist sucks i’m going w/ leornardo davici

  • Big Dog Cholo

    I think Jose CLemente Orozco is a fantabulous arttist and needs to be treated like any other artist. Just because he is mexican doesn’t mean you are allowed to discriminate. I love him and cherish him and all his murals.

  • Dante’

    His artwork is a little creepy, but his art is also kinda cool at the same time.

  • bLoCk F

    this guy creeps me out with his art.
    yo no me gusta Jose Clemente Orozco

  • sovon som

    AS AN INDIAN ART HISTORIAN I HAVE GREAT REGARDS FOR THIS MURALIST WHOSE WORK MATCHES OUR TRADITION,

  • Someone

    He is my great great umm well my ancestor AND IM NOT KIDDING! :D

  • 3milio c@stro

    I personally respect Jose Clemente Orozco’s art. He
    paints what he sees in the world so if his art is said to be “creepy” or “odd” then what does that say about our world??? He is just like most artists misunderstood and not given the respect they deserve.

  • Gabriel Martinez

    “Truth is agly my firends and it turns in to beauty in the mind of an artist”—- My heart speedsup by the precious images of all my mexican artist!

  • Tzigane

    Crude, great, terrifiying, great insight, Goya, Piccasso have nothing on this artist for his insights into war, suffring and the human condition… the man of fire.. the artist, a tormented man of genius. Good work Mr. Tejadaflores putting this story together.

  • edwin

    orozco is immortal his talent always been recognized a real artist is always known even when they are just students orozco was very recognized in mexico and in colombia argentina chile peru overseas too spain germany france they all knew about his style

  • Michael

    Oraco is one of the best artists ever, and being a latino myself it makes me proud to know someone of my heritage doing beautiful paintings like this

  • macario ortiz

    I’m looking to buy “walls of fire” which deals with the Mexican Mural movement led by Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

  • selena

    yo comi mucha comdio con jose clemente . yo pinto y su madre es un puta

  • brenda

    well
    he souds very intetresting and
    im doing this person fo ma spanish class:)

  • Clarita

    Thank you for writing this analysis of Jose Clement Orozco. His work is passionate and full of meaning. Whenever I am in Mexico City I make it my duty to see the muralists works. Orazco work are unforgettable timeless pieces that speaks to my heart and clearly demonstrates the true meaning of living life out large. His life speaks of the human will to be triumphant over all burdens. Viva Orozco!

  • kait

    Where can I go to watch this?!! I’ve been searching everywhere online and can’t find anywhere to watch online or a way to purchase a dvd.

  • roman

    you should add some pictures of him. he was a werid looking guy, but an awsome muralist drawer

  • Laurie Coyle

    OROZCO: Man of Fire will be rebroadcast on the PBS series American Masters the first week of September 2010 (check your local PBS station) and on the national PBS schedule on September 20 after the program Cachao. You can also order the DVD from us (the filmmakers) at http://www.paradigmproductions.org

  • Deborah Windham

    I loved this program. In my area, it followed a documentary of Cachao. His art is very powerful and so unflinchingly honest. Also, as a musician, I particularly loved the score. I thought it was a perfect accompaniment to Orozco’s story.

  • Hannah

    Why Orozco paint the Man of Fire? What is the message he is trying to get across to his audience?

  • Hannah

    This info is great but I thought it would describe why he would paint this mural. what he is trying to tell his audience.

  • Viri

    for anyone that feels like his art is “creepy” or would like to publicize your ignorance
    don’t forget that his art was based on the world, not just Mexico.
    Just because someone is Mexican does not give anyone reason to judge their art in such a bad way as to call their mother a bitch, totally unnecessary and ignorant

  • Tyler

    I love this guys art! I wish I could meet him in real life just to see what kind of person he is. They say you can usually tell a person by the type of art they draw. I’ve always been able to do this, however from this guys art I’ve NEVER been able to get a clear image of just what type of person he is.

  • Amarena

    Where can I purchase this episode? I would love to share it with my Spanish students.

  • peter carpenter

    While visiting my brother who was a student at Dartmouth, I spent several mornings completely mesmerized watching Orozco painting the mural in the Baker library. He acknowledged me, and at one point put a dab of green paint on my finger. I would like to access pictures of the murals. Please advise.

  • bob mcbob

    his artwork is very interesting

  • Meghan

    I’m writing a paper for Spanish Class about this guy and it seems like he has seen some stuff to emotionally scar him, but his murals are beautiful.

  • Hue Gass

    what happened when he was a kid?

  • Dolly

    Did Orozco paint other paintings such as trees,and lakes? I have a painting with his name on the left hand corner and the frame is from mexico. I bought in the 60,s Most of the paintings I have seen, it does not seem like the kind of paintings he did.

Salinger

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.