Pandaemonium

THE EPIC OF AMERICAN CIVILIZATION

Orozco Epic

The early decades of the 20th century were a golden age for Mexican muralists. Murals were seen as a means of intertwining public art and radical politics in the new revolutionary Mexico. The two leading figures of the movement were Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. I have written previously of Rivera’s magnificent Detroit Industry murals. At Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I spoke last week, I found, in the basement of the Baker Library, one of Orozco’s most significant works, The Epic of American Civilization.

In the 1930s, Dartmouth College was looking for an art project it could commission to put itself on the academic map. Like many American institutions of the time, it turned to Mexican Marxist muralists to help give itself a sense of identity (the Wall Street Journal observed of Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals the irony that it should be a work by a Marxist that ‘remains one of America’s most significant monuments to itself’.) Orozco began his Dartmouth project in 1932, and completed it two years later.

In The Epic of American Civilization, Orozco retells the story of America as that of the Americas, rooting the birth of America not in Anglo-European but in Indo-Hispanic civilisation, and seeing modern America as the culmination of a centuries-long single history. The mural consists of 20 panels, the first nine of which deal with pre-Columbian history, the final eleven with the story of the European arrival and the making of modern America, ending with a triptych panel on ‘Modern industrial man’. For Orozco, contemporary America was both a celebration of modernity, and a malign, destructive force.

Orozco was not as fine a painter as Rivera, and The Epic of American Civilization is  too didactic and cartoonish (both as art and as history, and, no doubt, intentionally).  Nevertheless, to find in the basement of a library of a small New England college such a work is a treasure.

The photos below are in order of the panels (though not all the panels are here). The titles of the panels were not assigned by Orozco, but given to them later by curators at Dartmouth College.


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Ancient Human Migration

Orozco Epic Migration

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Snake and Spears

Orozco Epic Snake and spears

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Ancient human sacrifice

Orozco Epic Ancient Human Sacrifice

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Aztec warriors

Orozco Epic Aztec warriors

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Coming of Quetzalcoatl

Orozco Epic Coming of Quetzalcoatl

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The Pre-Columbian Golden Age

Orozco Epic Pre-Colombia Golden Age

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Departure of Quetzalcoatl

Orozco Epic Departure of Quetzlcoatl 2

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The Prophecy

Orozco Epic The Prophecy

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Cortez and the Cross

Orozco Epic Cortez and the Cross

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The Machine

Orozco Epic The Machine

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Anglo-America

Orozco Epic Anglo America

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Hispano-America

Orozco Epic Hispano-America

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Gods of the Modern World

Orozco Epic Gods of the Modern World

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Modern Human Sacrifice

Orozco Epic Modern human sacrifice

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Chains of the Spirit

Orozco Epic Chains of the spirit

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Modern Migration of the Spirit

Orozco Epic Modern migration of the spirit

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Modern Industrial Man

Orozco Epic Modern Indiustrial Man 1

Orozco Epic Modern Industrial Man detail