The Epic of American Civilization: Orozco’s Legacy at Dartmouth
One writer explores the rich history of José Clemente Orozco’s “The Epic of American Civilization” and its special place in Dartmouth’s culture.
This article is featured in the 2023 Homecoming special issue.
Frescoed onto the walls of the lower level of Baker library, José Clemente Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization is a timeless piece of art that represents an important piece of Dartmouth’s history. Between 1932 to 1934, Mexican painter and muralist Orozco was the second artist-in-residence at Dartmouth. He dedicated those two years to painting a 24-panel mural cycle that adorns the walls between Carpenter Hall and Baker Library. As with all great works of art, students and the Dartmouth community continue to find meaning in the murals, even though that meaning has evolved dramatically since its creation.
Before Orozco’s commission, there was some discussion of inviting a muralist to create frescoes at Dartmouth. Artemas Packard and Churchill Lathrop, two professors in the art department — which had not yet been split into the studio art and art history departments — successfully advocated for the College to commission a mural in 1932, according to the Hood Museum of Art. They sought a well-known muralist to teach their students fresco techniques in light of the revival of muralism in the art world.
According to art history professor Mary Coffey, whose book, “Orozco’s American Epic: Myth, History, and the Melancholy of Race” represents some of the most recent scholarship on the murals, the professors chose Orozco over muralist Diego Rivera because he was the less politically controversial choice.
“He’s not as dogged by controversy as Rivera is, and he’s stylistically very different,” Coffey explained. “He’s slower, his style is more aggressive, less beautiful — conventionally beautiful — but also less obviously political in the sense that the politics is in imagery and not in slogans and communist insignia.”
Initially, the College invited Orozco to paint a small mural as a demonstration, titled “Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life,” which remains in the lower level of Baker, and they ended up inviting him back as an artist-in-residence. Because he lived and worked at Dartmouth, the Hood Museum of Art holds many of his preliminary sketches in its collection. Additionally, Rauner Special Collections Library has several boxes of files that include research, correspondence, and other materials related to Orozco’s residency at Dartmouth.
Throughout the process of creating the murals, Orozco demonstrated the revived ancient technique of fresco painting, which includes applying increasingly fine layers of plaster to the wall and water-based pigments to the wet plaster. Coffey said that as the plaster dries, the pigments and the image they create “become part of the wall,” making fresco a stable medium, so the murals have remained virtually unchanged since their creation.
Coffey explained that the murals depict the ancient Americas, populated by Indigenous civilizations, on the left, and the modern Americas, shaped by colonialism, on the right. Orozco divided these with the reserve desk in the middle of the room, inviting viewers to draw parallels between the events of the ancient and modern Americas, revealing the cyclical nature of history. In 1934, when Orozco finished the mural, the typical Dartmouth student would have been a wealthy white man, so Orozco’s artwork aimed to challenge the conventional, Eurocentric understanding of American history students likely held, Coffey added.
According to Coffey, Orozco’s sympathy for anarchist and socialist ideologies, along with his criticism of industrialism, capitalism and institutes of education within his murals, sparked a lot of controversy, particularly among small groups of alumni.
Amelia Kahl — Barbara C. & Harvey P. Hood 1918 academic programming curator — explained that these groups of alumni demanded the removal of the mural, protesting the College’s employment of “foreign communists” to paint on their walls. That division between some alumni and the current students, Coffey said, is a “dynamic [that] continues today, in the sense that we often have alumni who are alarmed by changes they see happening in the College.”
Despite this controversy, Coffey explained that the murals were painted at the perfect time. “This moment of 1932 is kind of the apex and the end of public mural art in America,” she said. In the early 1930s, people were excited about muralism because it felt new and experimental, but that excitement died down just a few years later.
Part of the reason why that excitement died down is because people started to perceive muralism as a potentially dangerous proposition: frescoes are essentially permanent and can only be removed by being chipped out of the walls, and no one wanted to be accused of censorship for removing a fresco. The destruction of Rivera’s mural at the Rockefeller Center in 1932 caused some worry around the creation of murals at Dartmouth, particularly among alumni. Coffey added that because of the controversy of having Orozco create his murals in Baker Library, “President [Ernest Martin] Hopkins … said, ‘My only advice to my successor is to stay away from murals.”
However, the perception of Orozco’s murals has changed dramatically as the College has evolved. Many alumni have told Coffey that the murals kindled their interest in Latin American art, politics, and history, and that they continue to impact them long after they graduate. The “Modern Industrial Man” panels are, in many ways, “a kind of placeholder for an alternative future that Orozco is imagining,” Coffey said. The figure in the center panel is a working-class man of color, educating himself with books instead of the filtered education provided by institutes of higher education that Orozco criticizes in the panel “Gods of the Modern World.”
“He was creating a space for the Dartmouth [student body] of today,” Coffey said. “The ideas and the critiques that he’s painted on the wall actually correspond with their experiences.”
Elizabeth Rice Mattison — Andrew W. Mellon academic programming associate curator at the Hood Museum of Art — said that the risk that Orozco took in creating the “Gods of the Modern World” panel to criticize higher education in a major academic institution is “a model for Dartmouth students today, that for one’s values, you can really … make them compelling and read in perpetuity.”
Kahl thinks that Orozco’s courageous expression of his critical and often controversial views can set an example for Dartmouth students, especially with Beilock as the new president. “I would invite students to really take some time to look at that imagery and to use the Orozco murals as a point of reflection for their time at the college,” she said. “They’re kind of a touchstone for the kinds of ‘brave spaces’ and dialogues that new President Beilock has talked about.”
Coffey said that the murals are an important feature of Dartmouth’s campus because they can give students a sense of their place on campus. But, she added, “[they] also connect people to a much bigger world, a world far beyond the walls of Dartmouth, taking on these huge issues around politics and culture and … pushes the Dartmouth viewer to be curious about a world that’s bigger than this place.”
Due to their historical significance and the diverse themes that the murals explore, the Orozco murals have become integral to many Dartmouth classes. Coffey uses the murals in most of her classes, including ARTH 40.01, “American Art and Identity,” ARTH 40.03, “Art and Politics in Modern Latin America” and ARTH 63.01, “Mexican Muralism.” She takes her classes to the mural room, using the space to discuss the murals as the students observe and analyze them.
Kahl, who works with faculty to incorporate the murals into their curricula, said that she has worked with religion classes, using the murals to think about origin stories, among other things. Spanish professor Paloma Asensio, who teaches SPAN 1, “Intro to Spoken and Written Spanish,” SPAN 2, “Intro to spoken and written Spanish, Continued,” SPAN 3, “Continuation of Spanish 2. Advanced language instruction,” and SPAN 9, “Culture and Conversation” uses the murals to give her students practice speaking. In SPAN 1 and SPAN 2, she said, “the student will say something related to the colors, or the people there, or the relationship between them,” but in SPAN 9, they express what they think about the meaning and the themes of the work. She said that every time she takes her students back, they find new takeaways, using increasingly complex language to dive deeper into the ideas expressed in the murals.
In addition to being a useful tool for many classes, the Orozco mural room is also a study space. In 2012, renovations to the Orozco mural room included changing the lighting design to more uniformly light the murals without washing out any of the colors. Acoustic ceiling materials were added to absorb sounds, and the tables were refurbished, adding new reading lights. According to Coffey, it was important not to change the room too drastically. “If you change it too much or do something that is radically different from how it appeared when Orozco painted it, then you lose a certain understanding of this space and the mural,” she said.
The mural room is open to the public, serving as both a study space and a cultural attraction. Students who study there will often see visitors walking through with headphones, listening to guided tours of the murals, reading pamphlets provided at the circulation desk, or simply admiring the panels. In addition to those materials, there are virtual tours of the mural room, as well as recorded interviews with Coffey, to supplement or serve as an alternative to a visit.
But of course, the best way to experience them is by visiting them in person. The frescoes are imposing, and following the mural cycle from beginning to end can be an impactful experience. Kahl said that they’re “something that you can come to at different points in your intellectual journey, your academic journey, and find new places, new points of entry, new ideas.” The Orozco murals serve as a testament to the enduring power of art to challenge and provoke thought, providing a space for discourse and inviting us to contemplate and criticize the diverse and changing world in and beyond Dartmouth’s campus.