In the period between 1940 and 1945, although he had several major mural commissions, José Clemente Orozco turned increasingly to drawing and easel painting, revisiting themes and iconographic elements from prior mural cycles, including those at Pomona College (1930), Dartmouth University (1932-34) and the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara (1938-39). La Conquista reworks on canvas the image of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés on a vaulted panel in the north nave of the deconsecrated church of the former hospice in Guadalajara. Like the fresco painting that is its source, La Conquista focuses on the violence and devastation of the Spanish conquest, specifically the brutal subjugation of indigenous populations and the annihilation of the indigenous world. Orozco aligns the conquest with modern warfare, turning Cortes into a machine, a steel armored mechanical warrior. Even the archangel who tumbles from the sky to guide and spur the Conquistador into action becomes a mechanized weapon of death. As David Elliot has written in relation to the original mural, this image expresses a “ruthless imposition of an evangelical…faith” (David Elliot, ¡Orozco! 1883-1949, Oxford, 1980, p. 80).
Orozco heightens the dramatic tension, abject violence of the scene, and the idea of the clash of two cultures through expressive, jagged brushstrokes that assault the canvas. The artist also strategically uses a contrasting color palette to invoke duality: steely cold greys for the Spanish conquest and warm reds and browns for the ravaged bodies of the indigenous figures. Sharp diagonals throughout the composition add to the chaos of the scene and reinforce the historical violence Orozco expresses.
Throughout his work, Orozco often disavowed narrative minutiae in favor of historical exegesis. The broader vision of history that Orozco expressed in his murals, all marked by cyclical interactions of heroes, anti-heroes and the masses is summarized here in the brutal confrontation between the colonizers and the indigenous.
2018-2019 Stuart Z. Katz Professor of the Humanities and the Arts
The City College of New York, CUNY
Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Art
Ph.D. Program in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY
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