A champion of functionalist architecture in Mexico and a renowned muralist over the course of a long and distinguished career, O'Gorman turned his attention fully to easel painting in the last decade of his life, trading the social activism of his earlier years for the introspective and private world of his mature imagination. Weaving intricate detail and poetic fantasy into images of epic--and here, Biblical--proportion, he painted extraordinary landscapes that speak powerfully to the apocalyptic musings of his later years and his dwindling faith in humankind. O'Gorman proclaimed late in life that he would "die happy not to live in a world full of contradictions that have no solution," but even in the dark months leading up to his death in 1982, he considered that "art can be a kind of bridge between social forms and the vital needs of man."(1)
In a series of foreboding landscapes made during these final years, O'Gorman deftly explored the psychology of modern-day capitalism and the menace of hubris, as exemplified in the present work. As recounted in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the people of the ancient city of Babylon decided to erect a structure that would reach upward into heaven--offered not for the worship of God, however, but rather to the glory of man. Dismayed by such lavish display of human pride, God is said to have given each person a different language and scattered them across the earth; and thus the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel has become an allegory for the origin of nations and of languages and a quintessential parable of the dangers of excessive pride. In Las Ruinas de la Torre de Babel, the derelict tower becomes a metaphor for the contemporary world, defeated in O'Gorman's mind by the catastrophic consequences of reckless capitalism and bellicose nationalism over the course of the twentieth century. The smoldering ruins present a withering critique of the modern world, yet the apocalyptic scenario may nevertheless contain the hopeful horizons of a world soon to be restored to its natural order. "The buildings grow vertically like living organisms," Julieta Ortíz Gaitán has remarked:
The water, the ponds, the smoke from the chimneys, the strength of the architecture speak to something magnificent, frightening, premonitory...The winding road brings distant horizons into view, the pale sky, a solitary star. The world is a great, abandoned Tower of Babel. Will the terrible confusion leave enormous ruins as its evidence? Be that as it may, there is water in this desolation: waterfalls and fountains that suggest movement, that the origin of life is a cycle of constant flux.(2)
O'Gorman's image is at once timeless and utterly contemporary in its social redress, and in style too it borrows in equal parts from the strong colorism of the first-generation Mexican muralists and the mythic fantasy of sixteenth-century Netherlandish painting. "The irrational, fantastic, oneiric element" of O'Gorman's easel painting "directs us clearly and directly to the world of subjectivity," Ida Rodríguez Prampolini has remarked, and his recreation of the Tower of Babel is marvelously imaginative and strangely grotesque in its architectural pastiche. The ironic satire and the elaboration of fine details, from the floating facades to the distorted masonry, recall the fantastic complexity of Bosch's painting, for example, such as the epic The Garden of Earthly Delights. The universal projection of O'Gorman's imagery is, however, balanced by his rootedness in rural Mexico and attachment to the colors and forms of his native Guanajuato. A student and contemporary of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, whose idiosyncratic house and studio he built in the early 1930s, O'Gorman belongs to Mexico's great muralist tradition and, like Rivera, mastered at an early age the language of expressive color and monumental scale. O'Gorman created grand narratives of the history of Mexican civilization throughout his career, most notably the 43,000-square-foot mosaic at Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City. But in his late paintings he sought more transcendental subjects, drawing on fantastical visualizations of ancient sources--as in Las Ruinas de la Torre de Babel--as a corrective to the vagaries of modern life. "There is for man," O'Gorman explained, "another reality, that of his inner world, which he does not see with his eyes but which is only reflected in his mind with the images of the visible world."(3) It is that synergy between O'Gorman's inspired imagination and the distressed reality of the contemporary world that comes together in the present painting, which envisions both the fall of humankind and perhaps, out of its destruction, the beginnings of cosmopolitan new life.
1) J. O'Gorman, quoted in I. Rodríguez Prampolini, "El Creador, El Pensador, El Hombre," Juan O'Gorman 100 Años: Temples, Dibujos y Estudios Preparatorios, Mexico, D.F., Fomento Cultural Banamex, 2005, 199, 218.
2) J. Ortiz Gaitán, "El Concepto y la Línea: Los Dibujos de Juan O'Gorman," Juan O'Gorman 100 Años, 124-25.
3) O'Gorman, quoted in Rodríguez Prampolini, 215, 218.