Orozco’s American Epic: Myth, History and the Melancholy of Race

Orozco’s American Epic: Myth, History and the Melancholy of Race
Mary K. Coffey

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2020
384 pp. illus. 100 col. $28.95 paper
ISBN: 978-1-4780-0298-7.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Mosher
June 2021

I didn’t like Dartmouth College, which I attended 1973 until graduation in 1977. Much of its student body was too full of itself, actively sexist and reflexively racist. Its alumni and legacy students spent too much time polishing and policing its self-image. I did, however, love its mural cycle The Epic of American Civilization by José Clemente Orozco. And in this book, Prof. Mary K. Coffey rekindles and stokes that love.

Despite having conservative parents, I grew up with mom’s Diego Rivera postcard of Pancho Villa in the dining room, souvenir of a 1950 Mexican trip before their marriage. My dad showed me the Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Art, and later pointed out the Dartmouth Orozcos on my junior summer college tour. I’d painted some murals in my high school and was immediately attracted to the Baker Library Reserve Corridor’s mix of archaic and modern motifs in big, assertive figuration. Orozco’s Quetzalcoatl was intense, wild-eyed and fiery like John Steuart Curry’s John Brown—and that’s how I felt at seventeen. But muscled into Dartmouth, I felt exiled from participating with my arty friends in Ann Arbor’s cultural revolution, exchanging that for four years of alcoholic excess, some exciting academics, and retrograde traditionalist snootinesss in the college’s tortured early years coeducation.

In the melancholy Dartmouth I knew, much of the campus felt women were an outside-imposed imperial conquest, so rallied around emblems like the college’s circa-1900 Indian symbol and accompanying incantation Wa-Hoo-Wah!

In Orozco’s 1930s, fascism revved up in Europe and Japan, Stalinism gripped the Soviet Union, and the US and European working class suffered the deleterious effects of worldwide economic Depression. The prevalence of ruins of all kinds (including ideologies) in Orozco’s oeuvre led author Mary Coffey to appropriately employ another 1930s intellectual, Walter Benjamin, and employs his Origin of German Tragic Drama as a spyglass to inspect the murals. Coffey notes how when confronted with the psychic complexities of race in the US imaginary, Orozco painted the Spanish conquest of Mexico as a melancholy vision of emblems and ruins, what Benjamin might find the trauerspiel (the seventeenth-century emblem-drenched mourning play) of American modernity. Benjamin is handy go-to-guy in any arts criticism, so polyvalent and heterodox, like a Mexican muralist in his sweeping eclectic breadth. No one-way street, his unfinished book on nineteenth century Paris, containing flaneurs perambulating grand painted panoramas—and though only extant as stuffed and annotated file-drawer of notes—is in itself a mural cycle. Orozco’s walls full of imagery were intentionally open-ended and allegorical, a different modality than the fixed, even pedantic, meanings of Diego Rivera’s pageants of Mexican nationalism and indigenismo, which celebrated pre-Columbian bloody-but-virtuous polity upon his walls. Orozco, with his unruly hair, brush moustache and spectacles, even looked a bit like Benjamin (as I worry I’m like Benjamin in that I leave ambitious projects unfinished). I wonder if Professor Coffey’s students are assigned sections of his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to map to sections of Orozco’s mural. Might work.

Another scholar she cites, David Carrasco, found irony of the myth of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent now more believable after recent findings in China of feathered dinosaurs. The panoply of comic book gods in the mural endured a colonial melancholy that remade and sustained the Quetzalcoatl myth; I read Coffey’s book as the US Presidential election approached, which addled many with the conspiratorial myth of QAnon fueling the Trumpists frenzied mourning for a (supposedly) lost white supremacy. Quetzalcoatl myth also took wings in Craig Baldwin’s 1991 movie “Tribulation 99”, which used found footage of newsreels and Mexican horror movies for a science fiction mythos of invading “Quetzals” as the only possible explanation for the continuing, serial absurdities of US foreign policy in Latin America. At the time Baldwin assembled his movie in San Francisco, a few blocks away the 1975 Orozco-like mural by Gilberto Ramirez, with its smoke-belching steel refineries in black, white, fiery red and grays was being demolished. I keep a fragment of the mural, which California mural historian Tim Drescher (Dartmouth ’64) noted was probably better suited for Ramirez’s rustbelt home Chicago.

We can position Orozco midway between the static didacticism of Rivera to the dynamic streamlined exhortation of Siquieros. Orozco’s work stands in contrast with Rivera’s neat muralscapes of indigenous Mexicans and Marxism. Aztecs looked wistfully to the Toltecs of the past as Renaissance Europe looked to republican Rome, like the melancholy that Baudelaire found in Paris, strewn with ruins before Baron Hausmann’s gentrifying urban renewal. The melancholy of empire as experienced by Britons was a subject of George Orwell in his colonial policeman’s novel Burmese Days; soon Orwell vividly painted in words as vivid and grim as Orozco’s palette the fascist and Stalinist threats as well.

The Dominicans and Franciscans in Orozco’s murals, though part of the imperial process, tried to mitigate the abuses of the native people, for after all they had souls.  Sixteenth century. Father Mediata wrote a critical, mystical historia, millennial and suppressed and unpublished until 1870, ending with a Mayan god sending the messiah who “would kill the beast of avarice”. There continued suppression of historical research in both Spanish and independent Mexico. Nineteenth century Mexican interest in indigenous culture as an expression of mestize nationalism informed Rivera’s historical extravaganzas but Orozco approached the culture differently. While Rivera’s Marxist millenarianism saw philosophy as history, Orozco saw history as philosophy. Orozco’s Spanish Conquest of Mexico in Guadalajara (1937) depicts Cortes’ crimes as continuation of ongoing brutality and cruel sacrifices, deeper meaning be damned. And at Dartmouth, though Jesus has defiantly chopped down his confining Cross and raises his fist in revolutionary salute, Orozco’s gleaming, tumeric-hued Christ is one more grotesque god among many. I really should’ve had a Punk band at Dartmouth called the Yellow Christs.

Orozco painted Stalin and Mussolini as clowns in The Carnival of the Ideologies in Guadalajara in 1938, in the days of Walt Kuhn’s sad clown paintings and Emmett Kelley moping at the circus. Orozco might have appreciated the 1972 National Lampoon cover of a pie splattering in Che Guevara’s face, refreshing amidst “revolutionary” verities of the era yet which now appears to foreshadow the rightwing resurgence of Ronald Reagan’s Mo(u)rning in America. Orozco may have felt like an entertainer when painting in public at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. When Rivera did so at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939, his strategy was to include the Hollywood actress and a champion swimmer he hoped to seduce while in California.

Orozco’s images of women at Dartmouth are notable: a Protestant schoolmarm, Cortes’s consort Malintzin, a skeleton delivering “stillborn knowledge” before desiccated academics. Of the screaming skeleton’s delivery, an old joke said it was the only abortion that took place in conservative New Hampshire. And I recall a Dartmouth Pre-Med upset at a supposed statistic that 10% of the women in his class requested college-provided abortions, and in the second year of coeducation (my class) the number was so much higher it would not be released. He expected outrage, but I shrugged.

Coffey sees Malintzin as offstage mother of both “Hispano-American” (Orozco’s phrase) capitalist culture and the revolutionary deliverance of Pancho Villa. The schoolmarm’s white and white-like kids, a “deracialized imaginary”, mass like the children in (Dartmouth Class of 1929) Joseph Losey’s horror movie “These Are the Damned”, with hypnotized thousand-yard stares, young future Stepford wives. The grim teacher represents the northern Protestant order, its own violence subsumed; in our time, unexposed until Black Lives Matters activists capture it on their cell phones.  In contrast, Rivera had depicted masculine labor upon the feminine land of California, visions of northern technology and Hispanic spirit. Rivera’s Detroit murals showed modern industry as a collective of laboring men, energetically treading natural resources as fecund women, bringing forth her minerals. He added subjective details like the kidnapped (and murdered) Lindbergh baby being vaccinated in the murals’ “Nativity” panel, a baby unsaved by the best forensic science. It’s argued that Rivera’s wife Frida got depicted as “abject subject” to this Mexican nationalist man for her inability to bear him children, unsalvageable even by modern health science. Rivera saw factory machinery like statues of the ancient goddess Coatlique, associated with dead babies. Beneath such machinery lumbers the biopolitic failure of the modern state, including eugenics for “race improvement”, of which Henry Ford (owner of the factories depicted) was a fan. Subsequently, Detroit’s racial tensions exploded into violence in 1943 and 1967.

Orozco’s residency at Dartmouth from 1932 to1934, during which he painted the murals, was subsidized by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller; please forget her scumbag son Nelson, Dartmouth class of 1935, whom history remembers for ordering the massacre of prisoners at Attica State Prison, draconian drug laws, bogus reproductions of his family’s collection, death in flagrante with a young art historian, and the egregious painting over of Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural in Rockefeller Center.  Dartmouth President Ernest Martin Hopkins and his 1950s successor John Sloan Dickey proved themselves decent conservatives, leaving Orozco’s murals up despite alumni protests. I was surprised to learn Walter Beach Humphrey’s Hovey Grill murals—a retrograde right-wing reaction—were painted and installed in 1939, several years after Orozco’s; I had always just assumed they were a folly of the bibulous roaring ‘20s. Like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes or Maxfield Parish’s murals, or Frank Brangwyn’s eccentric figures that replaced Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads (an unenviable commission), they embodied a decorative tradition that Los Tres Grandes’ transformative work immediately trivialized. When the College recently pondered what to do with the Hovey murals, I recommended that the Native American students have custody of them, to permit access to only those they think serious and respectful.  What did Ojibwe-identified novelist Louise Erdrich ’76 think of them when at Dartmouth?

Coffey notes Orozco’s figure of a reclining worker reading a book. Is he handling a rare book? One could find 18th century medical volumes on Dartmouth Libraries’ circulating shelves in the 1970s. She thinks he may be African American, and for her, the gloves evoke minstrel tropes. Blackface minstrel shows were occasionally performed by New England students until the mid-1950s, and it’s argued that Mickey Mouse’s gloves in the US newspaper comics Orozco might have seen are a throwback to minstrelsy, likely the case with cartoon grifters Mutt and Jeff. I see the mural figure’s gloves more like those of Japanese police and highway workers. Yet the point is that the mural cycle’s culminating figure is not a socially concerned white professional male or female, but a dark-skinned, proletarian guy in the building trades.

Black and white mixed insufficiently in 1970s Dartmouth. A Black students’ fashion show in September 1973 had only two white viewers, a girl from Washington DC and me. I was amazed to hear a guy in my dorm declare “Baseball is a white man’s game.” As I walked one night with a Caribbean girl, a preppie couple looked at her beside her white hippie friend and sneered, “It figures”. Still, there were murals painted in 1972 by Florian Jenkins commemorating Malcolm X in the Shabazz Center in Cutter Hall (oddly unmentioned by Coffey). Besides distinguished Black faculty like Ashley Bryan and William Cook, Dartmouth hosted visiting artists in literature, drama and music who interrogated its social landscape. Photographer Jakob Holt gave his American Pictures presentation contrasting Black poverty and white wealth in the 1980s. Alumni can take further solace as Coffey ties the Orozco murals’ cultural, contextualized testimony to 2016 student activism over unfairly dismissed and unsupported Black faculty (activists who, in the book’s photo, appear to be largely white women of conscience). In 2002, performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña and his La Pocha Nostra collaborators used the Baker Hall murals to stage a two-hour “Orozo MEXotica” polymusical gesamtkunstwerk, with student performers who riffed on the stereotypes too often projected on their own racial, ethnic, sexual (often intersectional) identities. Their “ethno-cyborgs” were rich with historical, gender and societal associations in their “emblematic tableaux vivants” that ended in a crucifixion.

Orozco called his murals “a machine”, one that demands you walk through the mural cycle rather than take it in at once for a single glancing gestalt. The multiplicity of juxtaposed imagery is like the then-new picture newsmagazines of Stefan Lorant or Henry Luce, the politicized photo-collages of John Heartfield, the cinematic montages of Sergei Eisenstein and his enthusiastic early Soviet contemporaries: Orozco was likely aware of all of these. A grand mural cycle is narrative like a graphic novel, immersive hypertext, Mixed (Virtual or Augmented) Reality; at best, a community art machine!

Teaching my own university art students in a pandemic-driven online school year, I recall and process my own contradictory college experience at Dartmouth. On gloomy weekends I’d drink alone, then play the grand piano in the chapel or go unpack the Sherman Art Library in Carpenter Hall until closing time. A predecessor to Professor Coffey, Assistant Professor Perkins Foss taught a terrific Art History course in the 1970s—“The Will to Abstract”—that examined visual similarities and differences in the Book of Kells, Picasso’s Cubism, Mayan glyphs and (Foss’s fieldwork) festival art by the Urhobo people of the Niger Delta. Four-and-a-half decades later, Mary K. Coffey is now the favorite Professor at Dartmouth College that I never had. Her richly informed and nuanced Orozco’s American Epic: Myth, History and the Melancholy of Race on some of this hemisphere’s greatest murals deepens my understanding and affection for the most memorable body of imagery encountered in four unhappy years of my life.  ¡Bravo, Maestra!