How I Discovered that Mexican Muralism Started in my Hometown

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I spent my whole childhood in Claremont and never realized the first US mural by Jose Clemente Orozco was painted just down the street from where I lived.

Every Thanksgiving break I visit my family in Claremont, California. My hometown is a small city on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains with a population of around 35,000 people. Mostly known for the Claremont Colleges, and warmly referred to as the "city of trees and PHDs", this town was once a vast citrus grove.

I was excited to visit during this holiday break because "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA" was taking place in over 70 art institutions across Southern California, including Claremont. Exploring the Latin American experience and arts dialogue with Los Angeles, this multi-location exhibition spans from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara to San Diego (Exhibition run: September 2017-January 2018).

Among the galleries and museums my parents and I visited, the Pomona College Museum of Art had the a striking show entitled "Prometheus 2017" showcasing four artists from Mexico revisiting the work of Orozco, which led us to discover an original Orozco mural on campus that was over 80 years old.

Just a short walk through the campus revealed the first Orozco mural in the United States, entitled "Prometheus" completed in 1930 in Pomona College's Frary Dining Hall. This marks in history the first mural completed in the United States by one of Los Tres Grandes, Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The Mexican mural movement in the United States can, thus, be said to have begun in Claremont.

Post revolutionary Mexican Muralism was a tool for social justice and civic engagement, and was often funded by the government to instill feelings of utopia and civic pride. By the end of the 1920s, patronage had dwindled and muralists moved north to seek work in the United States.

In the late 1920s Orozco was selected to paint the mural within the newly built Frary dining hall by the architect Sumner Spaulding and Professor of Hispanic civilization and art history José Pijoán. Pijoan arranged for Orozco to do the fresco for $2,000.  Orozco agreed, and decided to create a mural based on the Greek myth of the titan Prometheus.  According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the Greek gods and gave it to humanity on Earth.  For this act, he was eternally punished by Zeus, who directed his eagle to eat Prometheus’ liver every day (the liver regenerated itself every day, only to be eaten by the eagle again).  Orozco chose this myth to be the subject of his mural to represent enlightenment and knowledge in place of learning.

It is interesting to think that those who first encountered the historically significant mural were students in an all-male dining hall at a prestigious private college. The students also noticed that a part of the male anatomy was missing, and a number of articles in the student paper discussed this. Initially, Orozco painted Prometheus without genitals and it is unclear whether it was his own decision or pressure from the college’s board of trustees.  Three months after he completed the work, he returned to Claremont on his way to New York and commented “you know, I regret I have not finished Prometheus himself.  He lacks the natural organs the figure should have.”  Orozco, who had his paints with him on the trip, decided to complete the mural by adding Prometheus’ genitals.  The subject of male nudity was controversial at the time and is still a topic today when discussing an artist’s vision and integrity.   

Discovering the masterwork "Prometheus", just a few miles from my childhood home, showed me that there are always hidden treasures within your city to be found.