From time to time, curators at the University of Guadalajara’s centerpiece museum, the Museo de Las Artes or MUSA, undertake exhibits highlighting its crown jewels:
the fresco murals by Jose Clemente Orozco, done between 1935 and 1937, which adorn the dome and wall behind the podium of its auditorium, known as the Paraninfo, located in midtown Guadalajara at Juarez and Enrique Diaz de Leon.
They are at it again, with a new group of video creations, entitled “Orozco Metafisico,” (metaphysical Orozco), which can be enjoyed in a small room on the building’s second floor (adding the attractive necessity of ascending the Art Deco staircase that graces the entrance).
But before going upstairs, take a look – or another look – at the two murals themselves, which are always open to the public during museum hours, except on the rare occasion of a conference in the Paraninfo. There are usually a few people reclining in the comfortable auditorium chairs and gazing at the murals; sometimes even students making notes or drawing. You can also view the Paraninfo by entering through second-floor doors on your way to the video exhibition.
The use of “metafisico” in the exhibition’s title may be a stretch, implying the supernatural. In a sense, of course, all art is based on intangibles – concepts that go far beyond the mere materials and techniques used. In fact, many artists, especially those who depict “real life,” love to speak about LEARNING TO SEE, as if their brand of vision is something over and above what normally happens in your eyes and brain.
Orozco, according to Laura Ayala, coordinator of the video exhibition, was no exception. Although his subject matter was the real world — overwhelmingly people and the things they use — his work was thick with symbolism, which he, like most artists, obstinately refused to explain. His goal, Ayala explained, was to get people to really see, to notice what they failed to notice before.
In my case, the show accomplished this. Although I thought I had studied these murals, after I sat for 20 minutes in the dark exhibition room, surrounded by a lot of young people and five separate displays that slowly paraded, faded in and out or whirled in ever changing sequences that constantly repeated themselves in loops, I found myself making new discoveries.
One was the sinister scariness of the mural behind the podium, “El pueblo y sus falsos lideres” (The people and their false leaders). One video sequence focuses on a triad of figures – a military officer and two thugs – and it led me to fully see how threatening they are, with their bestial visages, axes and stacks of guns. Together with a crusading working-class leader, who, pointing his saw, urges on a legion of skeletal figures that might have come from a zombie movie, this mural is a grim reminder of present realities: the murders decimating Central America, Ciudad Juarez, Michoacan and, yes, Jalisco, and the demagogues who mislead millions of unsophisticated followers.
Another discovery was Orozco’s near total focus on humanity. All his images that are not humans closely revolve around them: just one other animal (the domesticated horse), man-made objects (tools, flags, books, signs and buildings) and two natural elements most connected with humans (earth and fire) and, last but not least, human anatomy (images of intestines, blood vessels and skulls clinically sawed open).
Not only this, but I now saw that Orozco concentrates on humanity’s dark side. Yes, his figures are sometimes heroic, particularly El Maestro (the teacher) who stands out in the mural on the cupola, “El hombre creador y rebelde” (Man, creator and rebel). But his people are much more often as creepy as his anatomical parts. In fact, in these two murals, Orozco depicts about 30 near-corpses and eight bad guys, along with just four heroic figures, one of whom appears to have a noose around his neck.
My last discovery struck like a thunderbolt. Orozco painted no women, at least none that I could find – not in the Paraninfo nor in his two other Guadalajara murals (in the Instituto Cultural Cabañas and Palacio de Gobierno). He paints warriors, robots, workers, monks, nobles, soldiers, children, angels and corpses, a few of indeterminate gender and a few with penises, but none identifiable as women.
Why? No female models available? The artists appears to have made detailed sketches from life, but all I have seen were of men. Were women not involved in or too good for the traumatic social upheavals he depicts? On the Internet, I found a couple of Orozco works depicting women – fat, leering society ladies in one painting and a mural in the Baker Library at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire showing a robotic woman giving birth while a skull-faced male academic extracts a baby wearing a mortarboard. So even when the artist does occasionally paint women, it was with the same soul searing vision as with his men.
If they haven’t already, someone should write their thesis on the lack of women as well as another mystery – why Orozco painted human anatomical parts. Did he study anatomy or work in a morgue or hospital? Do the dissected body parts symbolize cold, mechanical violence against people? There is clearly symbolism here, and the video exhibition draws our attention to it, yet, like Orozco himself, gives no answers.
“Orozco Metafisico,” shows until September 24 at MUSA, Juarez 975, Guadalajara. Entrance is always free. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays. See www.musaudg.mx.