Review of 'Jose Clemente Orozco in the United States', eds. Renato Gonzáles Mello and Diane Miliotes, WW Norton £40.00
The Mexican Revolution, whatever else may be said about it, succeeded in producing an astonishingly rich visual art. This was the political mural, a unique form of expression, particular to the time and place of the Mexican Revolution. The three most famous and successful practitioners of this art form were Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. This book deals with the last of the three, and as such is very welcome, as Orozco is probably the least well known of the three outside of Mexico, although this book is chiefly concerned with his work in the United States between 1927 and 1934.
Orozco's express reason for emigrating to the US was the lack of decent commissions at home. This book is a collection of essays on his work in the US written by a group of American academics, and is basically an exhibition catalogue. Sadly, as far as I could tell, the exhibition is not coming to Britain. The book has some fascinating accounts of his life and work in the north, but overall seems to lack a coherent critique. Perhaps this is inevitable with such compilations and, given that most of the work that Orozco undertook in the US was on university campuses, maybe academics are exactly the people to talk on the subject, though Orozco's mural depicting 'dead learning' certainly shows no outstanding respect for academia.
The book is full of beautifully reproduced prints of his work, both in Mexico and in the US, and like his contemporary Diego Rivera it is full of mischievous 'anti-imperialist' digs at his hosts, the North Americans. Orozco's work differs from Rivera's both in style, being much more expressively painted, and in its ideological slant. Whereas Rivera tried to paint the Mexican Revolution in Communist colours, to paraphrase Lenin, Orozco's work is full of bitter irony which does not spare the failings of Mexican society any more than he spared the Americans. Orozco was often regarded as a caricaturist, which he hated. Nevertheless his work is not a million miles away from a certain type of political cartoon, and at any rate he was an admirer of the US tradition of cartooning.
The book is unfortunately not cheap, but there aren't many opportunities to see his work in this country. Of course, however beautiful the reproductions are, they can't come close to the impact of the originals, if for no other reason than the scale of the murals, which was a defining characteristic of these giant public pieces of art.