“Art is Knowledge at the service of emotion.” – Jose Clemente Orozco
Long before discovering the story of Otokichi in Japan, I was in Mexico where I encountered the muralist Jose Clemente Orozco whose story is more cerebral than that of the world-traveled Otokichi.
Although my Spanish language skills have diminished over time since my study in Guadalajara, Orozco’s work has not faded from memory.
At the end of Plaza de Tapatía, pass the shops and restaurants that line the pedestrian mall and just beyond the fountain is the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas, a museum that now houses Orozco’s magnus opus El Hombre de Fuego or The Man of Fire.
Built in 1805 and formerly Hospicio Cabanas, Instituto Cultural was once used at one time or another as an orphanage, a home for invalids, an insane asylum and a jail—a place for the unwanted and social outcasts of society, a fitting canvas for Orozco’s theme of the human condition.
As I walked inside, the vastness and grandeur reminded me of a Gothic cathedral--drafty, reverential, and full of mysterious signs and symbols. But instead of majestic crosses and resurrected Jesuses, Orozco’s murals were telling other stories of death and sacrifice.
Between 1936 and 1939, Orozco was here tirelessly climbing up and down the scaffolding despite his ailing health. In the end, he completed 53 frescoes covering the walls and ceilings. They are full of unidentifiable figures darkly drawn, murals full of steel machines bent on destruction, bodies with anguished faces buried under layers upon layers of dirt, a mechanized horse equipped with cannons and artillery, a macabre knight with his sword drawn, and multiple representations of peasants cowering with faces of eternal despair.
And there in the middle of this hall is the great mural encased in the cupola, the one that became to be the symbol of Orozco’s belief of an ideal future for humans: The Man of Fire.
There are three major events in Orozco’s life that shaped his esthetic outlook of the world. He was born in 1883 in Zapotlan el Grande, now Ciudad Guzman, in the state of Jalisco. As a child, Orozco grew up in a world of poverty and sickness. Even though he lost the use of his left hand in an accident, he committed himself to become an artist. Perhaps, it was an escape of sorts from the reality around him and only through art did he find sanctity.
When he was 27 years old, Mexico was in the grips of a civil war which lasted ten years and fomented his ideas about humanity’s idealism and its tragic consequences. At this time, Orozco wrote in his autobiography that “people were used to killing, to the most pitiless egotism, to the glutting of the sensibilities, to naked bestiality,” while the government was in “struggle for power and wealth.” A chaotic world, where friends suddenly became enemies and enemies became friends bent upon “mutual extermination."
When the war in Mexico ended, a malevolent force was just beginning to stir in Europe. In 1932, as fascism began to take root, Orozco was there to witness firsthand its effect of authoritarian control based on nationalism and racism, ideology that Orozco fought against, not with guns or knives but with paints and brushes.
Inside the cupola of the Instituto Cultural de Cabanas 60 meters high is the Man of Fire. Also known as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico, it is Orozco’s greatest artistic achievement, and a summation of many of the universal themes he painted earlier in his career. Here we have the story not only of Mexico but also all of humankind. A story that depicts our past, present and future.
From my perspective 60 meters below, lying back on one of the wooden benches, I felt insignificant, about to be crushed by a foot of a giant of no other than the Man of Fire himself. And because the surface is curved, housed in a dome of the cupola, how did Orozco paint the mural as if it were on a flat surface and from the perspective of an ant looking up?
Just like the future is unknown, so too is the face of The Man of Fire, hidden and indistinct as the flames lick across his head and neck and surround his entire body.
He is the idealized future where people will cast off the notions of culture, race and nationality. Chains that have enslaved humankind throughout its history. Orozco dreamed of a world where a new race would be forged out of the fires of the chaotic world. A united humanity freed from prejudices that are associated with race. In the past, when the Spaniards came to the New World and encountered the Indigenous Peoples, there was conflict and violence. But out of this “fire,” a new race was formed with its own distinct culture and identity.
In the corner are four men representing Earth’s four races. Their arms are stretched above their heads, holding up the great weight of the circle that represents the Earth. Their muscles are bulging with strain, symbolizing how society has repressed mankind through its political and religious institutions despite their promises for a better world.
Now, Orozco is more relevant than ever as nationalism and isolationism is emerging as the new world order. Orozco could identify with this revolution. After all, he painted the cyclic nature of humankind’s destiny, of alternating between creation and destruction, represented in the circle of ghostly graven images that seem to swirl around the Man of Fire. Ultimately, in his vision of the world without a God, this cycle is both humankind’s tragedy and its redemption.
A modest, quiet and solitary man, Orozco once said in the introduction of his autobiography that there was “nothing of special interest in [his life], no famous exploits, or heroic deeds,” but consisted of only the “uninterrupted and tremendous efforts of a Mexican painter to learn his trade and find opportunities to practice it.”
He showed the world a vision that was first perceived as too complex and controversial for the public at the time. But later when people opened their eyes and began to search for meaning and identity, they once again cast their eyes up at the Man of Fire and realized that they were looking at a mirror that reflected both their greatest hopes and their greatest fears.