On the wall, just above double doors, in a narrow hallway connecting the Dartmouth College Baker Memorial Library lower-level reserve reading room with Carpenter Hall, is a seldom seen masterpiece. It bears the unwieldy title Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life. It is a test panel for what became the most ambitious work in the United States by the great Mexican fresco muralist José Clemente Orozco, the least lauded of the three Mexican artists who visited and worked in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s. Known as “Los Tres Grandes,” Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Orozco came north both by invitation and in search of commissions as work in Mexico became scarce. Orozco said of the mural:
“It represents man emerging from a heap of destructive machinery symbolizing slavery, automatism and the converting of a human being into a robot, without brain, heart or free will, under the control of another machine. Man is now shown in command of his own hands, and he is at last free to shape his own destiny.”
All three of these Mexican artists were committed to the ideals of the Mexican Revolution of the previous decade; their work was infused with not only a passionate sense of indigenous social and political activism, but also an unconcealed suspicion of (bordering on antipathy to) unbridled capitalism. They viewed corporate America as an embodiment of many of mankind’s woes.
Dartmouth’s Baker Memorial Library was built in 1928 and is at one end of a broad quadrangle called “The Green.” Rising above the entrance is a 200’-tall steeple in American Georgian style.
By any normative standard, no one would expect that inside the doorway resides a 3,200-square-foot 24-panel fresco cycle of Mesoamerica titled The Epic of American Civilization. This grandly ambitious work grew out of the seldom seen test panel that Orozco painted in March 1932, when he was invited by Dartmouth to give a lecture/demonstration on mural technique. At that time there was much interest in the techniques of fresco painting, but few examples were readily to be seen. Earlier, Orozco had painted another single-panel fresco, Prometheus, at Pomona College in Southern California.
Unique to fresco painting are the dictates of what is termed “giornata.” Because paint is applied to a layer of wet lime plaster before it can dry, the artist must carefully determine how much area he can cover in a single work session that cannot exceed about 12 hours. An in-person examination of the Dartmouth murals, which were created close to eye level, reveals an outline of each day’s work that is not easily seen in photos. The Wikipedia entry for “buon fresco” presents an absorbing review of the challenges of the technique.
It was the Dartmouth art-department faculty that invited Orozco to the campus. He was their choice over Diego Rivera, who was the preferred candidate for the Dartmouth commission by the sponsoring Rockefeller family. There is an irony here in that Rivera, who was at the time painting a mural cycle in Rockefeller Center, was soon to run afoul of the family’s reigning son, Nelson. This Rockefeller is said to have favored Matisse for the commission; he destroyed Rivera’s nearly completed mural when Rivera refused to remove a portrait of Lenin. This unleashed one of the greatest controversies in 20th century art.
Rivera later recreated the mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and he included the Lenin portrait, which you can see here right of center, between the airplane props.
Orozco’s New York dealer, Alma Reed, was pushing very hard for Orozco to be given a commission to paint a full mural cycle at Dartmouth. Orozco was equally eager, so much so that he offered to pay his own way to the remote New Hampshire town of Hanover.
After completing the hallway test panel and seeing how well it was received by faculty, students and college administrators, Orozco proposed a much more ambitious work, one that would depict the pageant of American (not just U.S.) civilization from its mythic origins to the more problematic apotheosis of 20th century industrial society. Orozco outlined the cycle’s theme, cleverly flattering the college trustees by portraying them as men able to see beyond the narrow confines of higher education. He wrote:
The American continental races are now becoming aware of their own personality as it emerges from two cultural currents — the indigenous and the European. The great American myth of Quetzalcoatl is a living one, embracing both elements and pointing clearly, by its prophetic nature, to the responsibility shared equally by the two Americas of creating here an authentic New World civilization. I feel that this subject has a special significance for an institution such as Dartmouth College, which has its origin in a continental rather than in a local outlook — the foundation of Dartmouth, I understand, predating the foundation of the United States.
A history of the mural’s creation and a detailed guide to the full work can be seen on Dartmouth's website. The site also provides a high-resolution panoramic photo of the entire mural, a perspective that is as close as you can get to being in the room itself.
Orozco came to Dartmouth after he completed a commission in the dining room of the New School of Social Research in Manhattan.
At almost the very same time, American artist Thomas Hart Benton was working in the New School’s boardroom on America Today, his 10-panel commission. Benton’s cycle was painted on wallboard and not subject to the in situ fate of many frescoes. I recently wrote about America Today, now installed at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Incidentally, Benton’s student Jackson Pollock became one of Orozco’s most fervent supporters.)
Dartmouth associate professor Mary Coffey has published a definitive work on Orozco and the Mexican muralists, and it includes many compelling photographs. In a video, she discusses the Dartmouth mural and its continuing vitality as an aesthetic and pedagogical work. She is standing next to the work in several shots, and this gives a better sense of its scale than do shots of isolated figures.
As useful as the work has proven to be in the 80-plus years since its completion, it was not universally lauded when it was unveiled. Coffey says:
"Many alumni did not like the mural. The first reaction was just, ‘It’s ugly. We don’t like this kind of art. We want heroic pictures of our founders.’ They thought that it was attacking the institution, that it was attacking the United States, and that a Mexican should not be painting in a New England institution.”
This reaction was not unexpected, as the United States was not only in the depths of the Great Depression, but also engaged in an isolating Nativism that was openly hostile to the leftist politics of our neighbor to the south.
But in March 2013, Orozco’s Dartmouth mural was designated a National Historic Landmark under the protection of the National Park Service, a designation it shares with Augustus Saint-Gaudens' studio and gardens in nearby Cornish, New Hampshire.
I was able to visit both places several months ago, guided by film historian Bruce Posner, who had invited me to speak at an evening cinema class at Dartmouth.
A detailed reading of Orozco’s contract and fees (listed in a Dept. of the Interior report) reveals that the artist was paid $7,000 by Dartmouth. By contrast, his colleague Rivera was paid approximately $21,000 for the Rockefeller Center mural. This suggests the parsimony of Orozco’s New England Protestant patrons, or perhaps just how much the artist wanted the commission. Orozco had said he felt it crucial to have a grand work installed in the founding fathers’ heart of America, especially in one of America’s oldest universities, a campus founded with a deep commitment to educating not only whites, but also indigenous Native Americans, people with whom Mexicans felt strong bonds.
The oft-contentious relations between Mexico and the United States find graphic expression in a section of Orozco’s mural that overlaps the ordered, even rigid nature of American life with the volatility and greed of what we now call “the military-industrial complex.” In this section, a bandolier-wearing Mexican revolutionary with his rifle at rest is juxtaposed with a severe Anglo schoolteacher, book in hand; behind the revolutionary is a uniformed American general flanked by cannons and backed by masked, top-hatted industrialists — knife in hand, ready to assassinate the unsuspecting peon/soldier.
However, what might have most riled Dartmouth’s alumni and benefactors is the section titled “Gods of the Modern World,” easily the most scathing part of the mural cycle.
Writer Robert Wolf catches Orozco’s seething anger in his description:
"Skeletons robed in academic gowns stand facing us. In the foreground, another skeleton lies in birthing position, legs spread and upraised, pregnant with books. Bending over this skeleton is another, a robed academic holding in its hands a baby skeleton with a mortarboard and tassel. Formaldehyde-filled jars with baby skeletons fall alongside piles of black tomes. The dead bring forth the dead: dead academics beget more dead academics and dead books, a self-perpetuating cycle. The world is on fire, yet the living dead robed in academic gowns are unaware of it. Unaware and impotent, their backs are turned to the conflagration."
Coffey notes Orozco’s shift in tone, from the idealism of the era of Quetzalcoatl and pre-Conquest (before Cortes), to a perspective that presents Mexico as the victim of Spain and the First World:
“Instead of treating the history of the American epic as one of gradual enlightenment, his story about the modern world is one about the traumas and the legacies of violence, of a modern world that’s born in violence.”
Several years ago, the National Film Preservation Foundation awarded Dartmouth a grant to restore a 1961 documentary short about the myth of Quetzalcoatl that uses images of the mural. Alumnus Robert Canton made a serviceable document of the work that is very much in the style of the era’s educational films. The documentary won’t give you any sense of the flow of the work, partly because of the film’s sometimes frenetic montage editing — a misplaced attempt to bring life to “static” images. It would have been more helpful to simply hold on top-to-bottom fragments of the mural, allowing the viewer’s eyes to move across the frame.
(This use of frenetic montage in contemporary cinema is a subject I will address in a future post, one about the cinematic courage of Timbuktu director Abderrahmane Sissako.)
To view a major work like The Epic of Civilization on site, as you must, is to gain a window onto not just the overall vision, but also the finest detail. Only by close inspection can you see how the artist laid out each day’s work, the giornata, as an evolving process. I always advocate seeing art face to face rather than via compromised reproductions, and it is nowhere so crucial as when viewing a 20th century masterpiece like Orozco’s Dartmouth mural.