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January 22 - March 3 at the Pomona College Museum of Art, Pomona

by Kathy Zimmerer

José Clemente Orozco’s exquisite preparatory drawings for Prometheus, his powerful mural (measuring 20 x 28’) located in Frary Hall at Pomona College, illustrate his inherent mastery of line and composition. Commissioned in 1930 with the encouragement of Sumner Spalding, the architect of Frary Hall, and Jose Pijoan, a professor of Hispanic civilization and art history at Pomona College, the mural was Orozco’s first work of art in this country and the first Mexican mural in North America. Because of its strong expressionist attributes, the mural caused controversy among the professors, but the students supported the artist by helping raise money to pay his fee. Later, of course, Orozco gained fame as one of “los tres grandes,” the three celebrated Mexican muralists that included Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

The preparatory drawings for Prometheus have been in the possession of Orozco’s family for years, and only recently were they acquired by the Pomona College Museum of Art. The seventeen drawings include five compositional sketches for the mural’s four panels and twelve figure studies. The figure studies recall the Mannerist style of Michelanglo’s late work or Pontormo’s elongated bodies, for Orozco uses attenuation and distortion to express a startling range of emotion.

Beautifully composed by Orozco to perfectly fit the architectural space, the mural depicts Prometheus, the mythological titan who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity, and who was then horribly punished by a raging Zeus. His magnificent but anguished figure fills up the apex of the arch, and beams of orange fire radiate out from his powerful hands. Rows of distorted figures reaching for the fire are clustered symmetrically behind him. The incredibly dynamic upward movement induced by the symmetry and action of the figures adds a great sense of psychological tension to the narrative.

The preparatory drawings serve to visually elucidate this masterpiece. Most beautiful is a detailed drawing of the figure of Prometheus that outlines the triangular composition and shows the strong musculature of his body. Humanity is dwarfed beside his magnificent scale, and he seems confined within a space too small for his power. In its skill and beauty of line and modeling, the study measures up to the Renaissance and Mannerist masters that it echoes.

Also highlighting the drawings is a study of a torso for one of the larger human figures, a dynamic image that reveals the inherent movement in the body with strong lines and shadows. Another amazing study entitled Torso With Raised Arm reveals the strength and facility of Orozco’s hand.

Other drawings give fascinating glimpses of Orozco’s leanings towards a very modern expressionism in the mural. Hands are raised in fists or appeal, bodies are stretched upward in determination and all figures are focused on Prometheus and his magnificent gift.

To compress and simplify his message in the main panel, Orozco created a subtle, shifting composition of abstract planes and symbolic flames for the ceiling of the mural. A lovely drawing, Abstract Composition delineates these geometric shapes.

“Prometheus," fresco mural, 20' x 28' 6", 1930.

“Centaur in Agony,” study for lateral panel
(east), charcoal on paper, 8.5 x 8”, 1930.

“Destruction of Mythology," study for lateral
panel, charcoal on paper, 14 x 6 1/4", 1930.

"Torso" study for central panel, charcoal
on paper, 16 1/2 x 12", 1930.

Three strong drawings for the adjacent panels to the mural (which were designed by Orozco but mostly painted by his assistant Jorge Juan Crespo de la Serna) depict tormented mythological images including, Strangulation of Mythology, Centaur in Agony and Destruction of Mythology. Orozco signals the new enlightenment of mankind with the end of the old reign of the gods. He aptly depicts the end in a magnificent drawing of a centaur wrapped in the coils of a giant serpent. The compressed spiral movement of the line fills the frame and adds to the implied drama.

Though at times he was overshadowed by his flamboyant contemporary Diego Rivera, Orozco’s gifts as a prominent muralist, painter, graphic artist and incredible draftsman cannot be underestimated. His work influenced many key painters, including the likes of Leonard Baskin, Rupert Garcia, Leon Golub, Rico Le Brun, and Jackson Pollock. These superb studies for the Prometheus mural reveal an artist who was a master at expressing intense emotion and drama through linear means.