The Quixotic Orozco
By Gary Donalds
As of late, and via an attempt to understand and hopefully blend more Into my soon-to- be adopted home in Mexico, I have taken to the history books and discovered an extremely complicated, rich in folklore, and often at times downright incredible morass of textured historical events that often border on the macabre. Mexico is not lacking in chaotic adventures, tragic catastrophes, or in flamboyant characters that participated in the overall insanity, that more often than not, was not part of any original idea or plan. Stuff just happens, and mañana is another day. I find this part of the Mexican psyche endearing and often, comical Mexico is surreal.
It was during these forays into the history books that I discovered a monumental character of such importance to Mexican culture that I find it heartbreaking that his country of birth misunderstood his prose, and often felt it necessary to remind him that perhaps his skills as an artist, and talents as a writer, may well be better served under the protective wing of his neighbors to the north. So it is, in fact, possible to derail an individual’s life, and career with all the tact and decorum of a runaway train, and send them scurrying off to places unknown, and still get a good night’s sleep. Tyrants rarely suffer from insomnia.
Jose Clemente Orozco was as abstinent an individual as ever to make his life in and around the Sierra Madre’s of his birthplace, in the real estate we know as Mexico. As with his opponents, tact and decorum were not Orozco’s most endearing qualities. These attributes or shortcomings, depending on your perspective, would later prove to be a thorn in the side of many an ambitious political. Twice Orozco had to flee his homeland and take refuge in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where his genius as an author/artist was not lost because of bureaucratic malfeasance.
While studying to become an architect, Orozco had lost his hand in accident. With his knowledge of design and engineering, he switched his studies to art. Orozco would soon become one Mexico’s pioneer muralists, and would one day mentor the now infamous Diego Rivera. His unapologetic and realistic depictions of life in and around Mexico City and Guadalajara were often more than the puritanical collaborators of chaos could tolerate. His murals of brothels were the bane of the society muckedy-mucks, and were regularly ordered destroyed. Any and all murals on and in government buildings were ordered to be whitewashed.
It was only luck that preserved some of these masterpieces. When the government decreed that Orozco’s work was an atrocity against art and culture, in what can only be described as an assassination of spirit, did the gods of justice and passion intervene. While the government-conscripted painters were mixing up their pails of whitewash, there was, at the time, a group of foreign art dignitaries in the capitol. The audible collective gasp of the artisan elite could quite possibly be heard as far away as Monterrey. The indignation was certainly not lost on the high society lords, and ladies of the time, who finally capitulated.
During the revolution years in and around 1910, a more hospitable, albeit just as bloodthirsty, Mexican milestone was taking place. Tierra y Libertad was all the rage, and the up and coming recipients of the new era wanted it documented. Enter Jose Clemente Orozco to keep the folks at home apprised of all the triumphs of Pancho Villa.
Orozco was one of the first war correspondents of the time. But the love affair would not last long. Orozco did what he had always done as an artist and writer, (and to paraphrase the baseball idiom), “He called ‘em the way he saw ‘em.” At times Orozco was so critical of Villa’s exploits that he feared for his life. He would at times refer to Villa’s assaults on the villages he rode into as not much more than an adolescent foray into the unassuming public populace, who quite often did not know what all the fuss was about, and at times, a chaotic escapade with little plan and seemingly smaller purpose.
Mexicans are for the most part deeply romantic, but heroes in their history are few and far between. Pancho Villa stands tall among them.
Orozco had crossed the line. He was buried in Mexico with only a few friends in the artistic community and his direct family in attendance, Diego Rivera among them. No one from the government of any political persuasion dared attend. But Orozco left his mark and we are all better for it. He deeply loved his country as much as all Mexican people do, and even when he was critical of them, only wanted what he felt they deserved, and were entirely capable of handling.