During Orozco's second and most prolific stay in New York, between 1927 and 1934, he produced a small corpus of graphic work that drew upon both traditional Mexican subjects and his experience of the modern city. He drew extensively throughout his career, plying the graphic medium both experimentally, in preparation for major mural projects and paintings, and as an end in itself, notably in two series of ink drawings devoted to the Mexican Revolution. The first series, México en revolución, consists of forty-three drawings that rail against social and historical injustice, drawing on characteristic revolutionary themes of anticlericalism, corruption, and devastation. The Hanged Man belongs to a second series of brush and ink illustrations that Orozco completed in 1929 to accompany the English translation of Mariano Azuela's classic novel, Los de abajo (The Underdogs). One of five full-page illustrations commissioned for the book, The Hanged Man is an image of stark tragedy and pathos, a grim reminder of the excesses of the revolution and the degradation of its idealistic principles.
First published in serial form in 1915, Los de abajo chronicles the story of Demetrio Macías, an Indian peasant who joins the rebel army in the fight to overthrow the dictator, Porfirio Díaz. A disenchanted epic, the novel charts the spiraling moral decay of its brash protagonist, whose rise to the rank of general in Pancho Villa's army ends in ambushed defeat, as Macías is killed by his former allies. Rife with battle scenes and executions, Los de abajo is recognized as the first realistic portrayal of the Mexican Revolution, and Orozco's images bitterly capture the desolation and political failures of the insurgent nation. Enrique Munguía, who supervised the printing for Brentano's, chose Orozco over Diego Rivera for the illustrations, explaining: "I don't know why, Rivera gives me the impression of being an insensitive sketcher, bold, to be sure, but simplified to the point of affectation. Orozco, on the other hand, hasn't managed to tame himself. He is skittish. His artistic world is still in chaos."(1)
Orozco's illustrations vindicated Munguía's choice, their virile, expressionistic immediacy providing a dynamic analog to the text. Although the themes are similar to those explored in the México en revolución series, Orozco employed different techniques for the book illustrations, tailored to the vagaries of industrial printing and the fluctuations of tones and hue. "Orozco drew them as if scratching with ink on paper," scholar Renato González Mello has remarked, using no ink wash, and the effect is to magnify the dramatic pathos of the images.(2) In the present work, sharp value contrasts and forceful brushstrokes give a startling gravity to a scene of death and destruction. Three bodies slide miserably down a hillside, their face mostly hidden from view; their bodies merge seamlessly with the land, their forms integrated into the bank and echoed in the shape of the gently sloping mountains in the distance. The eponymous hanging man is the ultimate, hideous symbol of the casualties wrought by the revolution: bruised and defeated, his body dangles in mute witness to the horrors of war.
1) E. Munguía, quoted in Renato González Mello, "Public Painting and Private Painting: Easel Paintings, Drawings, Graphic Arts, and Mural Studies," in José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934, Hanover, N.H., Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2002, 84.
2) González Mello, "Public Painting and Private Painting," 84.