Guadalajara is a cultured town. There are many reasons to visit the capital of Jalisco, but the José Clemente Orozco murals should be at the top of that list. Thriving museums have grown up around the buildings adorned with murals by one of Mexico’s big three muralists. Guadalajara is the best place to learn about this prominent Mexican artist, go museum hopping, and see exhibitions by other artists inspired by a master.
Born in 1883 in the farming town of Zapotlán el Grande (today Ciudad Guzmán), the muralist spent several years of his youth in Guadalajara before moving to Mexico City. His parents wanted him to study agricultural engineering, but he was in love with art. At night he studied at San Carlos Art Academy with Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros and Gerardo Murillo (known as Dr. Atl). Then, after school, he was tutored by the illustrator and satirist, José Guadalupe Posada. He grew up in the midst of a talented generation of Mexican artists.
Orozco lost his left hand as a young man so he wasn’t going to be a typical soldier when the Mexican revolution broke out in 1910. Instead of serving in the infantry, he served the constitutionalist forces illustrating propaganda that supported Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obragon, ultimately against the forces of Pancho Villa. Much of his style was influenced by the senseless violence on the many sides of the decade-long conflict. Orozco’s murals are known to be darker and less optimistic about the future than his contemporaries.
After a period in the United States, Orozco spent five years working in Guadalajara. First, he painted at the University of Guadalajara, then the Jalisco State Government Palace, and finally the Hospicio Cabañas. The 57 murals that Orozco painted in the Hospicio Cabañas are considered his masterpiece and part of the reason the building was designated a world heritage site.
The opportunity to see more than one mural will help give you an appreciation for the artist’s style and world view. Walking through the plazas of downtown Guadalajara’s historic core, from museum to museum, is one of the more enjoyable days one can spend in Mexico. Visiting the José Clemente Orozco murals in Guadalajara is reason enough to travel to El Bajío.
The José Clemente Orozco Murals in the Museo de las Artes (Musa) de la Universidad de Guadalajara
In 1935, José Clemente Orozco came to Guadalajara on the invitation of Gobernador Everardo Topete to paint murals in three prominent buildings. His first stop was at the University of Guadalajara (U de G).
Today, the building is a museum. In 1935, the building was the newly inaugurated university auditorium. The U de G was re-inaugurated in 1925 after a 65 year absence and the auditorium is where the rectors of the university would hold their meetings. The space has a stage, floor seating, mezzanine seating, and natural light from a dome. Orozco painted one mural on the stage and one mural on the dome.
El Pueblo y Sus Falsos Líderes
Painted on the stage, El pueblo y sus falsos líderes (The town or townspeople and their false idols) is a critical look at the monopoly of education that was typical of the Porfiriato (age of President Porfirio Díaz). Only a very small proportion of the population could read at the time of the Mexican Revolution.
The mural depicts the heathen masses and the company men. The masses look like ghosts, shirtless, and partially blind. Their facial expressions show fear, anger, and contempt. The company men are the only ones with books. They wield the books like Bibles during a sermon but point with a carpenter’s saw. Other company men are armed with guns and clubs looking on with animal-like features. There is a general standing above the company men just observing the whole situation.
The characters of this mural are very well developed. They are a direct reference to the abuses of the haciendas.
El Hombre Creador y Rebelde
The dome of the university auditorium has another mural called El hombre creador y rebelde. This second mural is a stark contrast to the characters on the stage. The main character looks to be a teacher with handsome, chiseled features and short hair. There are references to learning and academic disciplines like geometry, greek, and a man with multiple faces. The characters in this second mural have normal proportions and do not look like the caricatures in the first mural.
The University of Guadalajara has turned into a major patron of the arts and the Musa is the crown jewel of the university owned museums. The biggest names in visiting exhibitions will be staged here.
The José Clemente Orozco Murals in the Palacio de Gobierno de Jalisco
After painting at the University of Guadalajara, José Clemente Orozco moved less than a mile down the street to start work on the Palacio de Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco. The government palace is next to the Guadalajara Cathedral and a series of plazas surrounded by historic buildings. In addition to the Orozco murals, there are several small museums also housed in the building.
Father Miguel Hidalgo spent some time in Guadalajara during the struggle for independence. In addition to instigating the independence movement, Hidalgo also declared the abolition of slavery in Mexico. The plaza next to this historic building is called the Liberation Plaza and is adorned with a statue of Hidalgo breaking the chains of slavery. However, there is another side to the mythology of Father Miguel Hidalgo.
Orozco wanted to tell more than one story. As you are on the first floor looking up all you can see is Hidalgo with a torch and some people below him. Climbing the stairs brings the lateral walls into view with additional themes like a bloodthirsty mob at his feet, the dark forces rising in pre-world war II Europe, and evil clergy.
Hidalgo is revered for calling for independence and putting the process in motion. His methods however, did not win over the middle class criollos (Spanish born in the new world). The peasant army (mob) that he raised easily overpowered the first few undefended towns and the proletariat class took their revenge. In Guadalajara, Hidalgo’s forces ruthlessly assassinated 700 Spanish prisoners of war.
On the lateral walls are more pessimistic images of nazis and bolsheviks, dressed like clowns, fighting with sickles, hammers, and crosses. This mural was painted in 1937, well before Germany started annexing and invading their neighbors during World War II. The comparison that Orozco is drawing between the dark forces of Europe and Hidalgo’s peasant army, side by side, is controversial to say the least.
Orozco used the contours of the room to create different realities depending on the vantage points used to appreciate the mural. From the first floor, Father Miguel Hidalgo is a liberator. From the second-floor vantage point, he is leading a mob thirsty for revenge.
La Gran Legislación Revolucionaria Mexicana y la Abolición de la Esclavitud
From the war of independence, the reform war, and the Mexican Revolution, Guadalajara has played an important role in the history of Mexico.
The Palacio de Gobierno is the seat of the state level government. However, for a month back in 1858 this was the National Palace. President Benito Juarez was fighting a civil war against conservative forces to reform the constitution. He was exiled from Mexico City by a powerful minority but congress dictated that the capital of Mexico would stay with the president as he traveled the country to build support.
The legislative chamber in the government palace was painted to commemorate some of the most important characters and legislation in the history of Mexico. The two legislative events portrayed in the mural are Juarez’s reform laws and Hidalgo’s call for liberty.
This was José Clemente Orozco’s last mural finished just months before his death on September 7th, 1949.
The José Clemente Orozco Murals in the Hospicio Cabañas
The Cabañas Cultural Center, housed in the 19th century Hospicio Cabañas building, is one of the finest museums in Mexico. With good reason, it was designated a Unesco world heritage site in 1997. The building holds José Clemente Orozco’s masterpiece, and it has a long history of humanitarian work.
From 1791 to 1980, this property was a shelter for people in need. It was a hospital, orphanage, and work program that would lift many out of abject poverty. Construction of the neoclassical building was started in 1805 under the Spanish rule but it was appropriated by the army during independence and given back to the clergy in 1828. The bishopric was a major landholder of the era and quite wealthy, as is apparent by the building’s sheer size and architectural detail.
In 1937,while the building was still in use as an orphanage and hospice, José Clemente Orozco started painting in the Hospicio Cabañas. He would spend two years completing 57 murals including El hombre en llamas (Man on fire).
Man on Fire is painted on the dome of what was the main chapel. The shape of the dome, and Orozco’s mastery, make the image appear to be walking in flames as the observer tilts their head to observe all 360 degrees of the piece.
There are a number of different interpretations of the work. Classic European themes like Greek and Roman mythology were common at the time, like the Glorieta Minerva just a few blocks away. Some people say that Man on Fire has elements of the rebirth of the phoenix. Others say that the four figures represent the three great Mexican muralists and their teacher: Orozco, Rivera, Siquieros, and Murillo.
No matter what you take from the murals, you will love the experience. Take the tour. Listen to the expert guides who will tell stories for an hour and leave you hungry for more.
I found this article in Spanish about the contrast between Orozco’s interpretation of Hernan Cortez and Diego Rivera’s interpretation of Hernan Cortes to be rather eye opening.
In addition to the Orozco murals, there is the Guillermo del Toro movie theater, rotating exhibitions, and ballet performances among much more. This museum is a major patron for the arts and makes Guadalajara a more enjoyable place to live and visit.
It is hard to overstate the influence that muralism has had on the Mexican national identity and the international art scene. If you are interested in learning more about Mexican history and culture, it would be beneficial to start with the 20th century muralist movement.
José Clemente Orozco painted in Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles but he left his best work in Guadalajara. The quality and the quantity of murals in this city will keep art lovers busy for some time.
The historic downtown has been redeveloped to favor pedestrians walking through the plazas from museum to museum. There are cafes, restaurants, and cantinas that really compliment the experience. Make it a point to come to check out the José Clemente Orozco murals in Guadalajara. It’s a cultured experience.