Orozco to Dartmouth: Kilroy Was Here!
Two summers ago, on a trip out East with my son Andrew, then looking at colleges, we stopped at Dartmouth. He was there for a several-day football camp, and I took the time to chase down a few things that I’d been meaning to see in that neck of the woods. One of them was Jose Clemente Orozco’s Epic of American Civilization, a fresco cycle in Baker Library. I spent an afternoon with the paintings.
I wrote this several days ago, while traveling. With the opportunity to scare up some images, I’m getting to the task of putting it up. I will admit straightaway that I don’t know a great deal about the Dartmouth murals, beyond what I was able to read in the materials provided. So what follows is a riff, an associative essaylet.
I am sitting in the reserve corridor at Baker Library at Dartmouth College, listening to a woman lecture in Spanish to a group of guffawing onlookers. They are engaged, as I am, in the activity of drinking in the color and the hortatory narrative of Jose Clemente Orozco’s Epic of American Civilization, a fresco cycle improbably executed in New Hampshire by a firebreathing Mexican muralist from 1932 to 1934.
I have been thinking and writing in recent days about graffiti and ancient scatalogical bathroom drawings as the progenitors of modern cartooning. An ethic of smartassery informs the tradition, as does an insistence on the creator’s point of view, often anonymous–as in the latrine–and the mocking defiance of the tag.
Orozco’s project, which spans an enormous space and consists of twenty-something panels, was designed as a parallelism of (mostly) Mesoamerican civilization before and after the Spanish conquests. A heroic achievement by any standard.
Orozco’s argument predominates, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I’m struck by several things on a purely visual level. One, when the narrative takes a backseat to setting, the form-making and color/value manipulation are especially impressive, as in a description of machinery arrayed like a combination of armor and architecture, and a view of a construction site. Wow!
Two, when it’s time to narrate, Orozco uses a figurative language that flattens into caricature, even as he models very well and thus suggests a sort of monumental, operatic puppet show. This combination of caricature with volumetric handling is cousin to Norman Rockwell’s invisible caricature, but more overt and not funny. Imagine Orozco having to suffer a comparison to Uncle Norman!
By the way, I meant to note this in a post a while ago, but never got back to it, so I’ll return to it here: Norman Rockwell’s civil rights work, and especially the Look piece “Murder in Mississippi” [discussed here] ultimately fails because, as my colleague Jeff Pike observed, Rockwell’s multi-step and time-consuming process squeezed all the urgency out of his finished works. Pike is right, of course.
But here’s the thing: comedy is always more technical than tragedy. Comedy requires meticulous preparation which must remain invisible in order for the joke to work. Think of those Buster Keaton stunts, or Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. Rockwell’s work is constructed with the same precision. He’s a comedian in the most basic sense.
Possibly the Norman Rockwell Museum is in the wrong mountain range–instead of the Berkshires, maybe it ought to be in the Catskills.
But back to Orozco. In addition to the very simplified language of certain figures [most notably the cartoonish unknown soldier in "Modern Human Sacrifice," which actually is sort of funny in a bleak way] the muralist’s message–quite didactic despite intimations of ambiguity here and there–strikes me as a sort of defiant tagging, and feels quite a bit like an editorial cartoon painted on wet plaster, or high cultural graffiti.
The Anglo-Americans are mindless robots, Depression-era Stepford people playacting at communal exchange. The revolutionary Zapatitesque figure is flanked but not deterred by (literally) money-sucking capitalists and bloodthirsty generals. And best of all, a panel of ghoulish professors in academic regalia–quite reminiscent of those bug-skulled noseless quasi-Asian merchant guys in the execrable Star Wars prequels–preside over an apparent abortion of a skeletal fetus from an equally dead parent. Kind of like Pirates of the Caribbean Go to College!
The catalogue available onsite (free of charge, published 2007, a very nice publication) includes an essay by Mary Coffey, an assistant professor of Art History at Dartmouth who writes,
In the 1930s,Orozco’s continental perspective countered the parochialism of Protestant New England…and gives voice to everything that depression-era colonial revivalists, regionalists, and antimodernists sought to repress about modern America.
Ah the modernist insurgent myth, according to which the truth-telling avant-gardist brings unwelcome news to the cretinous regionalists. I confess I have tired of these accounts, typically because they’re self-congratulatory and, more significantly, they tend not to engage the cultural position of “the opposition.” That is, the production and reception of a public work of art is a very complicated thing. Let us stipulate that people can behave like perfect asses in the face of really rather modest paintings or sculptures even while countenancing far more ghastly cultural excesses implicit in (say) a popular advertising campaign. But surely by now we ought to recognize that multiple perspectives are in play in a case like this one. There are more than two characters: the bringer of light and the troglodytic “antimodernist.” Yes, yes, the Scopes trial continues even today, and God knows that we do not know God if we accept such divine scrutability as that fantasized by the fundamentalists. But does a simple flinch in the presence of a beautiful but stentorian voice like Orozco’s really open a trap door?
For whatever it’s worth, this viewer admires the painting as well as the crazy grandiosity of this Epic. But surely it must be observed that Orozco’s programme suggests a Mexican parochialism not so different from the implied (Robert) Frosty version assigned to New England, only more florid. And more simplified.
Most remarkably, Orozco pulled the project off. Unlike his rival Diego Rivera, whose contemptuous insertion of Lenin in the Rockefeller Center murals crossed the line and scotched the deal, Orozco operated well enough inside the editorial safe zone to complete and be paid for a fresco cycle that mocked its patron in several respects. Hats off. JCO stuck it to the Man.
Finally, the cartoon history offered by Orozco delivers a striking message, not about historiography but of reverse-imperial attitude: Kilroy was here!