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Murals

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. https://journals.openedition.org/terrabrasilis/375 (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.

Categories
Murals Street Art

Life And Love At The Time Of Covid-19: Story Of An Impossible Touch

Dr Ilaria Grando shares a personal account of the Coronavirus emergency in Northern Italy, explored through the lens of Milanese urban art culture.

Can you imagine living in a world where you cannot give a hug, a kiss, or even a caress to your loved ones? Can you imagine living in a world where you relating to the other implies at least 1-metre distance?

“We are only left with a window view,” said my mother watching the moon shining bright and free in a dark sky. I cannot remember which day of the Italian lockdown it is. Time in quarantine runs as dense as honey, days overlapping with each other. Out there the world as I knew it has changed. The cities are deserted, the hospitals overcrowded. My country is padded in a noisy silence. And for me, a quarantined person in the North of Italy, it is a war within. I am not living with the virus, but I am living under its dictatorship.

In a red area country, the rules to follow are simple. Do not leave the house; clean often; if you have to leave the house for exceptional reasons keep at least 1-meter distance from and to another individual; avoid handshakes and hugs; do not touch eyes, mouth, and nose with your hands; cover mouth and nose when you are coughing or sneezing; wash your hands frequently; wear a face mask if you believe to be ill or if you are taking care of someone who is ill.[1] More simply: minimise and if possible avoid any unnecessary form of physical interaction. 

A humanity who has been deprived of touch, the humanity living at the time of COVID-19 has elected as its symbols face masks and hand-sanitisers. In the age of a celebrated virtual living, the pandemic has confined us to the sole use of the web as a way of communicating and interacting with other human beings, generating a crisis within the crisis. Italian street artist Tvboy has captured the problem in an image soon elected as a symbol of the COVID-19 reality in Italy. 

‘L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19’ ©Tvboy 2020. https://www.tvboy.it/2020/25862/

“L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19” (Love in the Time of CO…VID-19) appeared on the 28th of February 2020 in the streets of Milan. The announcement, given by the artist himself on social media, did not reveal the exact location of the work, leaving an aura of mystery.[2] Colouring an outside that is no longer accessible, Tvboy’s work appropriates a painting, symbol of the Italian Romantic movement, Francesco Hayez’s Il Bacio (The Kiss). Presented for the first time in Brera in 1859, Hayez’s work was meant to celebrate the positive outcome of the Second War of Italian Independence.[3] Set in an imagined Middle Ages, Il Bacio conveys the hopes of a soon-to-be nation in the tender kiss of a young couple.[4] The success of the painting is immediate: the audience likes the subject and understands the message clearly.[5] Eight years later, Hayez decides to approach the work again, and realise a second version to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle.[6] The political situation has changed, Italy is now an independent reign, and the colours can become livelier. The Italian and the French flags shine with decision in the clothes of the young lovers: in their kiss a story of alliance and national independence, in their kiss, the story of those who have left their country and loved ones to fight for their nations.[7]

1867, Il Bacio as the emblem of the individual’s sacrifice for the common good.

A hundred and sixy-oneyears later, Hayez’s young lovers are still engaging in a tender kiss but the premises are completely different. Tvboy, an artist living at the time of COVID-19, has thoughtfully provided the main characters with face masks. Once again, Art exits History to make sense of the present. This time, however, the image becomes paradoxical. The kiss is not a passionate expression of love but a representation of a past that, for now, can no longer be. Looking at Tvboy’s work, the audience will probably recall the adolescent beauty of Hayez’s painting, some will even remember its historical meaning. But in the clashing evidence of the differences standing between the two images, they will also start to question the realities depicted, confronting them to what it means to live and love at the time of COVID-19. Observing the image and comparing it to its original, it is soon clear that Tvboy’s lovers have very little to do with Hayez’s. The couple is close and yet extremely distant: they are protecting themselves from each other. The embrace is clumsy, unsure; their hands are too busy holding onto a hand sanitiser bottle to hold each other, and the kiss is obstructed by a safety mask. Touch but not touch. Kiss but not kiss. Tvboy’s couple is the perfect depiction of a virtual love that cannot exist in the practicality of life. I imagine the instant after the kiss, and I see a sudden departure of the two, almost as if, waking up from the suspend time of History, the lovers would finally realise how things have changed, and how their present, which is my present, can no longer permit their kiss.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization has officially called the COVID-19 crisis a “pandemic”.[8] 416,686 cases, 18,589 deaths in 196 countries (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm CET). 57,521 cases, 7,503 deaths, and 9,362 healed only in Italy (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm). Over 15 days upon changing my status from Italian citizen to Red Area inhabitant to citizen of a world facing a pandemic, I listen to the news with increasing concern letting tears streams out of my eyes.

The politics and the poetics that have defined Il Bacio since day one are once again summoned. Mediated by Tvboy, the painting adapts its meaning to the contemporary time, exiting its historical dimension. In the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see the big little sacrifices everyone is doing for the common good; in the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see a past memory, and the hope to make it a present reality soon.

2020, Il Bacio as an emblem of tomorrow when we will take those masks off, and kiss again. 


[1] “FAQ – Covid-19, domande e risposte; Prevenzione e Trattamento,” Ministero della Salute, Mar 10, 2020, accessed Mar 12, 2020, http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/nuovocoronavirus/dettaglioFaqNuovoCoronavirus.jsp?lingua=italiano&id=228#6

[2] Tvboy (@Tvboy), Tweet. Feb 28, 2020, access Mar 12, 2020, https://twitter.com/tvboyofficial/status/1233524989447589888

[3] Giovanna Galeschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (Sep 1, 2007): 346.

[4] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020, https://www.raiplayradio.it/audio/2015/12/Il-bacio—Puntata-del-06122015-cc4b6ef1-3d55-406e-970a-337c67c3625a.html

[5] “Il bacio, Francesco Hayez,”Pinacoteca di Brera, accessed Mar 25, 2020, https://pinacotecabrera.org/collezione-online/opere/il-bacio/

[6] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[7] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346-347; Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[8] Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020,” World Health Organization, Mar 11, 2020, accessed Mar 12 2020 https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020.

Further Readings:

  • Nancy, Jean Luc, Georges Didi-Huberman, Nathalie Heinich and Jean Christopher Baily. Del Contemporaneo: Saggi su Arte e Tempo. Edited by Federico Ferrari. Milano: Pearson Paravia Bruno Mondadori S.p.A, 2007.
  • Faleschini Lerner, Giovanna. “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History.” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (2007): 342-358.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history.