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Born November 23, 1883, Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco created impressive, realistic paintings. A product of the Mexican Revolution, he overcame poverty and eventually traveled to the U.S. and Europe to paint frescos for major institutions. A man of unparalleled vision, as well as striking contradiction, he died of heart failure at age 65.
The life of José Clemente Orozco is a tale of tragedy, adversity and outstanding achievement. Born in Mexico in 1883, he was raised in Zapotlán el Grande, a small city in Mexico’s southwestern region of Jalisco. When he was still a young boy, Orozco’s parents moved to Mexico City in hopes of making a better life for their three children. His father, Ireneo, was a businessman, and his mother, Maria Rosa, worked as a homemaker and sometimes sang for extra income. Despite his parents’ efforts, they often lived on the edge of poverty. The Mexican Revolution was heating up, and being a highly sensitive child, Orozco began noticing the many hardships people around him faced. While walking to school, he witnessed the Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada working in an open shop window. Posada’s politically engaged paintings not only intrigued Orozco, but they also awakened his first understanding of art as a powerful expression of political revolt.
At age 15, Orozco left the city and traveled to the countryside. His parents sent him away in order to study agricultural engineering, a profession he had very little interest in pursuing. While at school, he contracted rheumatic fever. His father died of typhus soon after he returned home. Perhaps Orozco finally felt free to pursue his true passion, because almost immediately he began taking art classes at San Carlos Academy. To support his mother, he also worked small jobs, first as a draftsman for an architectural firm, and then later as a post-mortem painter, hand-coloring portraits of the dead.
Just around the time Orozco became certain about pursuing a career in art, tragedy struck. While mixing chemicals to make fireworks to celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day in 1904, he created an accidental explosion that injured his left arm and wrist. Due to the national festivities, a doctor did not see him for several days. By the time he was seen, gangrene had taken over and it was necessary to amputate his entire left hand. As he healed, the Mexican Revolution was eminent in everyone’s minds, and the personal suffering Orozco experienced was mirrored in the growing political strife happening all around him.
For the next several years, Orozco scraped by, working for a time as a caricaturist for an independent, oppositional newspaper. Even after he finally landed his first solo exhibition, titled “The House of Tears,” a glimpse at the lives of the women working in the city’s red-light district, Orozco found himself painting Kewpie dolls to pay the rent. Given his own struggles, it’s not surprising that his paintings teemed with social complexities. In 1922, Orozco began creating murals. The original impetus for this work was an innovative literacy campaign put in place by Mexico’s new revolutionary government. The idea was to paint murals on public buildings as a method for broadcasting their campaign messages. He did this for only a short time, but the medium of mural painting stuck. Orozco eventually became known as one of the three “Mexican Muralists.” The other two were his contemporaries, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Over time, Orozco’s work was uniquely recognized and set apart from Rivera’s and Siqueiros’ for its intensity and focus on human suffering. His vast scenes illustrated the lives and struggles of peasants and working-class folk.
Orozco married Margarita Valladares in 1923, and they had three children. In 1927, after years of working as an underappreciated artist in Mexico, Orozco left his family and moved to the United States. He spent a total of 10 years in America, during which time he witnessed the financial crash of 1929. His first mural in the United States was created for Pomona College in Claremont, California. He also devised massive works for the New School for Social Research, Dartmouth College and the Museum of Modern Art. One of his most famous murals is The Epic of American Civilization, housed in Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. It took two years to complete, is composed of 24 panels and is nearly 3,200 square feet.
In 1934, Orozco returned to his wife and country. Now established and highly respected, he was invited to paint in the Government Palace in Guadalajara. The main fresco found in its vaulted ceilings is titled The People and Its Leaders. Orozco, now in his mid-fifties, then painted what would become considered a masterpiece, the frescos found inside Guadalajara’s Hospicio Cabañas, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the oldest hospital complexes in Latin America. The work, which became known as the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas,” is a panorama of Mexico’s history, from pre-Hispanic times, including scenes of early Indian civilizations, through the Mexican Revolution, which he depicts as a society engulfed in flames. In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City commissioned him to create the centerpiece for its exhibition “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art.” His contributions included Dive Bomber and Tank, both commentaries on the impending Second World War.
Around this time, Orozco met Gloria Campobello, the prima ballerina for the Mexico City Ballet. Within three years, he left his wife Margarita to live with Gloria in New York City. The affair, however, ended almost as quickly as it started. In 1946, Campobello left him, and Orozco returned to Mexico to live alone. In 1947, the American author John Steinbeck asked Orozco to illustrate his book The Pearl. A year later, Orozco was asked to paint his only outdoor mural, Allegory of the Nation, at Mexico’s National Teachers College. The work was photographed and featured in Life magazine.
In the fall of 1949, Orozco completed his last fresco. On September 7, he died in his sleep of heart failure at the age of 65. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he was hailed as a master of the human condition, an artist bold enough to cut through the lies a nation tells its people. As Orozco insisted, “Painting…it persuades the heart.”