By 1938 when this self portrait was painted, the formidable Mexican Muralist had already completed some of the most grand and compelling murals of his career in both Mexico and the United States and was in the process of working on what many consider to be his magnum opus, the mural cycle Mexico: Before and After the Conquest at the deconsecrated chapel of the Hospicio Cabañas, Guadalajara’s former orphanage. As with other self-portraits by Orozco, it comes at a pivotal moment in the artist’s career. In this case, he had already found critical success abroad and at home and was continuing to develop the explosive and philosophical themes about humanity for which he had become known internationally.
Indeed, writing in 1935 about Orozco as the “Prometheus of Mexican Painting,” Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein described Orozco’s murals as “an explosion from the surface. The bodies…plunge headlong. It is an agglomeration of surfaces. Revolutionary force. Cyclone.” Furthermore, he aligns Orozco’s vision and prodigious creative capacity with a colorful description of the artist’s own visage, which is “protected by enormous round glasses with lenses as thick as the portholes of the extraordinary Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus, as related in Jules Verne’s marvelous stories.”[i]
The image Orozco conjures of himself is equally as intense as the ideas and iconography that proliferate in his murals. Concentrating on his own face, the artist limits the representation to his head and upper shoulders, achieving maximum expressive possibility with his stern, penetrating, and forceful countenance. He fills the composition from edge to edge, making him appear all the more monumental and powerful in his projected wisdom and intellectualism, suggested by those thick round glasses, among other attributes. Thus, although he is limited to a portion of his body, Orozco is able to project his potent personality also through the composition, the representation of his posture, and his handling of the painterly surface.
Activated by two strong and competing diagonals, the composition reinforces the tension found in the artist’s visage. Orozco exaggerates his contorted pose (perhaps the result of holding up a mirror to his face), creating a sloping ridge with his shoulders that cuts across the bottom half of the composition. He also throws his head back and tilts it slightly to the side so that his chin is lifted towards the viewer, making a diagonal from upper right to lower left that crisscrosses with the diagonal of his shoulders. This bolsters the overall sense of push and pull within the work, which formally emblematizes the artist’s complex personality and his artistic vision.
His posture combined with his facial expression makes it appear as if he is looking beyond us to some distant future that preoccupies him. No doubt the troubling worldwide events of the late 1930s weighed heavily on him, yet in many respects Orozco ventured beyond any particular or contemporary history and confronted universal woes that plagued humanity across the centuries. The expressive and broad brushstrokes of the artist’s collared shirt and the animated strokes throughout his face—around his eyes, his furrowed brow, underneath his downturned mouth—and even in the background, which is energetically infused with staccato strokes, exude an unbridled energy that capture Orozco’s unique intensity, inquisitive mind, and rebellious spirit.
Associate Professor of Art History
CCNY and The Graduate Center/CUNY
[i]Sergei Eisenstein, “Orozco: The Prometheus of Mexican Painting,” [Notes: unpublished manuscript written in early 1935], published in David Elliot, , ¡Orozco!: 1883-1949, Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1980.
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