The eldest among "Los tres grandes" of Mexican mural painting, Orozco also had the least orthodox beginning as an artist of the trio; earning his living early on as a political caricaturist. This experience left a decidedly graphic element in his entire body of work, from his murals to his easel paintings, to his drawings and prints. It can be argued that Orozco, unlike Rivera and Siqueiros, was never a social-realist, but rather an expressionist whose work possessed social and political engagement. This mixed media work, Prometheus, evokes the social through the sacrifice of a lonely hero for the disenfranchised masses, and it does so with a graphic language that is virulently expressive.
The summer of 1945 was a particularly prolific one for the artist; he executed some 250 ink drawings and four oils on canvas.(1) Of these, some 82 drawings were included in his third exhibition at El Colegio Nacional later that summer.(2) Among these drawings there are consistent themes; foreshortened female nudes, brothel scenes, military grotesqueries and a handful of myths such as Icarus, etc. There is no doubt that this Prometheus was executed at that time, although one cannot be certain as to its inclusion in the exhibition. Orozco had been obsessed with this subject since his 1930 fresco of the same theme (Pomona College), which reflected the influence of the Delphic Circle of Eva Sikelianos and his art dealer Alma Reed. In 1935 he printed a drypoint on the subject, and in 1944 he painted two oils on canvas of the same. These are all variations on the Pomona mural, where the rebellious god faces frontwards as he pulls fire from above.
This oil and ink on paper is different in that we see Prometheus' back. His body, which at first seems headless, is roughly painted in brown, pale pink and gray. He kneels on his right leg while his left knee is bent, in order to support the effort of pulling fire down from the heavens with both raised arms. Surrounding Prometheus is a virtuoso web of pen and ink lines that range from delicate cross hatchings to coarse, thick strips. The back of Prometheus' head is barely visible through the entangled lines; perhaps it is lost in the darkness above (the heavens, Olympus), from which he is stealing fire. To the sides of his torso two large faces with troubled expressions emerge, while beneath his left leg the lower half of a seated female torso is visible. These are boldly drawn, solid yet free in execution; manifesting the skills of a master draftsman entering his "late" or "old age style." These three figures undoubtedly represent the mortals that live in cold and darkness and who will be liberated by the fire that Prometheus steals from the gods.
Prometheus is a solitary tragic hero, similar in his rebellious action to Orozco's Modern Migration of the Spirit fresco panel (Dartmouth College, 1932-34) and his later version of Christ Destroying His Cross (oil on canvas, 1943, Carrillo Gil Museum). In all these works the body of the rebel is a vessel of noble struggle, charged with suffering. In Prometheus it is significant that only his body has color, as he is the bringer of light and warmth, while the rest of the composition is black ink on white paper--a lifeless world of chilliness and obscurity.
Alejandro Anreus, Ph.D.
1) See José Clemente Orozco serie "La verdad" catalogue, Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, 2004, 11, 15, 165-168.
2) Titled Exposición de 70 dibujos recientes de José Clemente Orozco, after the checklist was printed Orozco added another 15 drawings to the exhibition.