Orozco’s and Portinari’s “American” Murals: Challenging Pan-Americanism

Renata Baltar shares her art historical research on Latin American mural artists and their connection to so-called Pan Americanism. In this article, she challenges the idea of a homogenous culture, and discussess regionalism and mythical references in the works of José Clemente Orozco and Candido Portinari.

When the United States created the Pan American Union (PAU) in 1890, it was an important shift in US foreign policy towards Latin America. Instead of military standoffs, cultural diplomacy started to play a major role. The basis for Pan Americanism was the idea of a shared continental solidarity and of a supposedly existing community of interests between the United States and Latin American countries.[1] Several generations of Latin American administrators and a US state-private network including defended that, “on this hemisphere will be developed a distinct Pan American art.”[2]

Two Latin American artists, the Mexican José Clemente Orozco and the Brazilian Candido Portinari, painted mural works in the United States supposedly about the hemispheric history of America that in fact could not have been more regional. In tackling so-called “American” subjects in these murals, Orozco and Portinari challenge the idea of a homogenised culture articulated within Pan Americanism.  Although these murals were produced during the hey-day of Pan Americanism when there was an attempt to construct a culturally and historically unified America, Orozco and Portinari’s works above all express local, regional, and national influences.

Painted for the Baker Library at Dartmouth College, Orozco’s Epic of American Civilisation (1932-34) tells the story of America from the mythical past of the Americas up to the arrival of Cortés, and then narrates the development of America after the contact between the indigenous peoples and Europeans. Like every epic, his heroes’ battles involve self-sacrifice and regeneration for the sake of the enlightenment and liberation of human kind,[3] but his mythic ‘heroes’ are not heroes belonging to the entire American continent, as the title suggests, but specifically ‘heroes’ associated to Mexican regional stories (the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl, and Cortez, the Revolutionary rebel).

Fig. 1

Figure 1. Jose Clemente Orozco. Epic of American Civilization, The Coming of Quetzalcoatl. The Pre Columbian-Age, 1932-34. Frescoes. Reserve reading room, Baker Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Figure 2. Jose Clemente Orozco. Epic of American Civilization, Cortez and the Cross, 1932-34. Fresco. Reserve reading room, Baker Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

As the content and iconography show, his American civilisation corresponds only to Mexico in ancient times and mainly the civilisations of the United States and Mexico in modern times. Orozco made use of the Pan American cooperative mode of continental relations that circulated in the patronage community to paint a mural in the United States that not only challenged the idea of a culturally united America, but also criticised the United States agenda in his America.

Figure 3. Jose Clemente Orozco. Epic of American Civilization, Anglo America, Hispano America, 1932-34. Fresco. Reserve reading room, Baker Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

For his epic, Orozco chose to focus on what made his America culturally and historically distinct from the rest of the Americas and from the United States. Orozco chose to portray Anglo America through a school and town meeting, which look like as a repressive, cold, calm, and standardizing world. Orozco explained that the picture of the town meeting illustrates part of the American political idealism which supposes that talking about public problems will keep order and peace and save the world.4]

In contrast to Anglo America, Hispano America is depicted as a violent and chaotic place, destroyed by imperialistic exploitation. Despite that, there is hope, which he represents in the figure of the Mexican rebel character, “the rebel spirit is what the US needs, the spirit of the Latin American, who will try to preserve his individuality and honour and self – respect at any cost.”[5]

Portinari, on the other hand, for his 1941 mural in the Hispanic Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. painted four historical cycles representing the colonisation period: Discovery of the Land, Entry into the Land, Teaching the Indians, and Discovery of Gold. Portinari’s history of colonial America is very similar to the history of Brazil that was being codified at that time by intellectuals and politicians.

At first glance,one could argue that the panels are in fact related to all the Americas’ colonial history.[6] However, if each of the panels is carefully analysed, it becomes clear that Portinari chose to interpret the colonisation of America through episodes specifically linked to the particular history of Brazil. The four panels are typical historical topics of the Brazilian national repertoire.

One of the main differences between Mexico and Brazil’s histories is that the former recognises and celebrates its ancient civilisation, while Brazil ignores its first natives. Hence, the fact that Orozco’s American epic starts with the Aztecs’ Migration while Portinari depicts the Discovery of the Land by the Europeans is not the result of pure chance.

Figure 4a. Jose Clemente Orozco. Epic of American Civilization, Migration, 1932-34. Frescoes. Reserve reading room, Baker Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.
Figure 4b. Candido Portinari. Discovery of the Land, 1941. Dry plaster in tempera. Hispanic Reading Room. Library of Congress. Washington D.C.

These different starting points are consequences of each of the countries’ distinct identity constructions. When Orozco painted, the indigenous past and the Mexican Revolution shaped Mexican visual arts directly, while for Portinari, Brazil’s colonial period imparted a sense of the country’s originality. In the context that followed the Independence of Brazil, historiography about territorial expansion, in many cases, sought to relate the occupation process to the uniqueness of being Brazilian. In this sense, the origins of the nation became the beginning of colonial occupation.[7]

The second panel, Entry into the Forest, clearly refers to the iconography of what in Brazil is known as the bandeirantes breakthrough. The bandeirantes were seventeenth-century Portuguese Brazilian slavers, fortune hunters, and adventurers from the São Paulo region whose expeditions represented the expansion towards the unknown west coast of Brazil. The theme of the bandeiras has a potential connection to North American history. Yet, this connection is not visible in Portinari’s panel, as he has painted a tropical country rather than arid land. Elements of the regional fauna and flora in the painting refute direct comparisons between the cultures.

Figure 5. Candido Portinari. Entry into the Land,
1941. Dry plaster in tempera. Hispanic Reading
Room. Library of Congress. Washington D.C.

In conclusion, Portinari’s and Orozco’s murals in the United States are relevant resources to combat the idea of a culturally and historically analogous Latin America. Above all, the murals’ symbols, imagery, styles, techniques, themes, narratives, regional allegories, objectives, and traditions in which each artist’s country of origin tell their histories challenge the idea of a Pan American art.

[1] Arturo Ardao, Génesis de la idea y el nombre de América Latina, (Caracas: Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Romulo Gallegos, 1980),16.

[2] Latin America Exhibition of Fine and Applied Art. Exh. Cat.,(New York: Rivermuseum, 1940).

[3] Jacquelynn Baas, “The Epic of American Civilization: The Mural at Dartmouth College,” in José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934, edited by Renato González Mello and Diane Miliotes (New York and London: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College and W.W. Norton & Co., 2002, 152.

[4] Quote in Baas, “The Epic of American Civilization: The Mural at Dartmouth College,” 168.

[5] Quote in Baas, The Epic of American Civilization: The Mural at Dartmouth College,” 168.

[6] Robert Smith writes in the booklet Murals by Cândido Portinari, Library of Congress, Hispanic Foundation (1943) that the director of the Library suggested to Portinari to look for symbols of identity common to both Portuguese and Spanish America.

[7] Raimundo Silvia Lopes, “Bandeirismo e identidade nacional,” Terra Brasilis 6 (2004): 1-18. (accessed July 15, 2018).

Further readings:

  • Williams. Daryle. Culture Wars in Brazil: The First Vargas Regime, 1930-1945. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
  • Oles, James. Art and Architecture in Mexico. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Renata Baltar completed in 2019 a master degree in modern and contemporary Art History, specialising in Latin America and United States at the City College of New York. She worked at the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP) from 2013 – 2016, and interned at Whitney Museum of American Art and at Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is currently writing a PhD research proposal in order to study how the new relationship with the US opened up unprecedented possibilities to reconfigure Brazil’s culture identity forged during the first half of the 20th century.