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11 / The Urban Experience

The Working Class (detail)
The Working Class (detail)
Artist / Origin José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949)
Date 1926
Material Fresco
Medium: Painting
Location Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City, Mexico
Credit © ARS, NY/ SOMAAP, Mexico City. Courtesy of Schalkwijk/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Anna Indych-LópezAssociate Professor of Art History, City University of New York

Additional Resources

Ades, Dawn. Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Barnitz, Jacqueline. Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Craven, David. Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910–1990, 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

The Working Class (detail)

» José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949)

In the 1920s, the post-revolutionary Mexican government under the leadership of President Alvaro Obregón called on expatriate artists to return to Mexico.

Guided by the belief that art could help restore Mexico’s national identity, the government rewarded these artists with major commissions for the decoration of public buildings. The person leading the effort to implement this agenda was Obregón’s minister of Education, José Vasconcelos.

Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco—often called los tres grandes (“the big three”) of the Mexican mural movement—were all involved in the early mural projects sponsored by the new government. The three were committed to the notion that art could be an instrument of mass communication and used their murals to offer social and political commentary on Mexico’s present as well as its past. While Rivera and Siqueiros continued to produce European-style easel paintings alongside their grand-scale wall paintings, Orozco devoted himself entirely to the latter.

Orozco is perhaps best known for the series of frescoes he created at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) in Mexico City. Work there by Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, and other artists in the period between 1922 and 1924 had elicited a largely negative response. The artists’ harsh views of the privileged classes did not sit well with the social elite who still dominated at institutions such as the Preparatory School. By 1926 when Orozco came back to do his second cycle, however, political and social circumstances had changed, as had the audience for his work.

Many of Orozco’s 1926 murals combine Christian and socialist imagery in expressions of pathos for the plight of Mexico’s poor workers. Among these is The Working Class, located on the school’s third floor. Set against a simple, almost abstract background, a line of monumental workers with stooped backs and bowed heads is the primary focus of the image. The laborers, most of whom are faceless, represent the masses who had suffered political and social disappointment after many years of violent revolution in the country. Orozco’s sensitivity to the dignity of the workers offered his new, more “popular” audience an image with which they could identify.

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