Men of Fire: José Clemente Orozco and Jackson Pollock

Posted on March 01, 2012 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring 2012
Michael Taylor, Director

This spring, the Hood Museum of Art will join in a worldwide celebration of the centenary of Jackson Pollock's birth in 1912. In partnership with the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, the museum presents Men of Fire: José Clemente Orozco and Jackson Pollock, an exhibition that exploresthe deep impact that Orozco's murals had on this emerging artist. The exhibition also marks the eightieth anniversary of Dartmouth's famous mural The Epic of American Civilization, which Orozco began painting for Baker Library's reserve reading room in 1932.

In the summer of 1936, twenty-four-year-old Jackson Pollock made the trip from New York City to Dartmouth College to see Orozco's recently completed mural cycle. The mural was a revelation to the American artist, and in the years following this trip, Pollock engaged with themes found in Orozco's masterpiece, including myth, ritual, sacrifice, and the creative and destructive power of fire. Men of Fire assembles the paintings, drawings, and prints that Pollock created following his trip to Dartmouth. Most were made between 1938 and 1941, at a time when Pollock's engagement with Orozco's art was most pronounced. The exhibition provides a unique opportunity not only to see many of these works together for the first time but also to compare them with the Orozco mural that inspired them, just a short walk away across the Dartmouth Green. The mural will be represented in the exhibition by several rarely seen preparatory studies—drawings in pencil, charcoal, and gouache—that will present the work of these two great modern artists side-by-side.

Pollock's painting Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton), about 1938–41, is perhaps the best example of Pollock's fascination with the Dartmouth mural and displays many of the elements of Orozco's work that most appealed to him. The painting depicts a skeletal figure with an ambiguous, hybrid anatomy lying across a white, stage-like ledge, as a female figure crouches above. Skull-like faces fill the background, an audience to the work's macabre drama. The skeletal figure allowed Pollock to reinvent the sacrificial ritual scenes that are abundant in the Dartmouth mural, particularly the skeleton giving birth to dead knowledge in the section known as "Gods of the Modern World." The white ledge in the Pollock painting, which also calls to mind an altar, even seems to refer to the architecture of Baker Library, where "Gods of the Modern World" hovers partially above the white lintel of a door. This painting contains many of the preoccupations that would consume Pollock during this era—myth and ritual, violence and rebirth, trauma and renewal—and he addressed them through the imagery and themes that he drew directly from Orozco. His use of snakes in Untitled (Bald Woman with Skeleton) and other works from this era, such as Circle, about 1938–41, evokes the serpents that appear in several panels of Orozco's mural, including "The Departure of Quetzalcoatl." Other Pollock works from this period, such as Naked Man with Knife, about 1938–40, also depict violent scenes of ritual sacrifice likely inspired by Orozco's panels "Gods of the Modern World" or "Ancient Sacrifice."

Pollock had long sought out opportunities to study Orozco's work. Pollock's older brother Charles had guided him to current art periodicals, such as Creative Art, where he saw and studied reproductions of work by Orozco. Even before Pollock traveled to see the Dartmouth mural, he went in 1930 to Pomona College in California to view Prometheus, Orozco's first mural commission in the United States, and he would have seen Orozco's mural for the New School for Social Research in New York, where Pollock's mentor Thomas Hart Benton was simultaneously working on a mural in 1931. In addition, there were several exhibitions of contemporary Mexican art in New York museums and commercial galleries throughout the 1930s and 1940s. During a period when Pollock was struggling with both his artistic vision and his personal demons, he employed Orozco's themes and imagery in his own work as a way to find his own voice. Orozco's imagery, divorced from any social or political meaning, enabled Pollock to develop a vocabulary with which to express his experience of psychic trauma in visual terms.

The title of the exhibition and catalogue references Orozco's famous fresco Man of Fire, painted for the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara from 1937 to 1939. The theme of fire—a powerful instrument of destruction and creation, and a symbol of renewal and rebirth— was frequently used by both Pollock and Orozco. Many of Pollock's works from this period were derived from an understanding of the symbolic use of flame that he drew, in some part, from his study of Orozco's murals. Pollock's The Flame, about 1934–38, for example, shows a white skeletal figure engulfed in vibrant orange, yellow, and red licks of fire, recalling in turn the fiery background of "Gods of the Modern World." In Circle, Pollock painted a flame-colored spiral surrounding abstracted serpent-like and reptilian beings. These examples demonstrate the predominance of this theme in Pollock's work from this period, but flames and fire, either referenced in some abstracted form through color or brushstroke, or more directly stated in the subject matter of the work, exist in many of the works assembled in this exhibition. Ultimately, both Orozco and Pollock, as Promethean artists, turned their critical eyes to the traumas of the modern world to conjure imagery that would endure as a marker of a period of global economic depression and war.

Men of Fire also presents the museum with the opportunity to inaugurate new lighting for the Orozco mural in Baker Library, devised by lighting designer Anita Jorgenson, which will give future generations of Dartmouth students the chance to experience the mural under state-of-the-art conditions. The Manton Foundation provided the funds for the lighting project, and as always, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their ongoing support of the preservation and maintenance of the Orozco mural as well as scholarly endeavors involving it. 

The exhibition and catalogue were organized by the Hood Museum of Art in partnership with the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. The catalogue was supported by Judith and Richard Steinberg, Class of 1954, and the exhibition at the Hood was made possible by Jan Seidler Ramirez, Class of 1973, Kate and Yaz Krehbiel, Class of 1991, Thayer 1992, and the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Hall Fund.

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Written March 01, 2012 by Kristin Swan