The Art & Anger of Juan O'Gorman: Recent Retrospective Exhibitions Reveal Both the Bristling Socialism and Mexican Soul of This Great Architect and Painter

Article excerpt

A restless spirit, uncompromising socialist, fierce environmentalist, Juan O'Gorman was an mist, first and foremost. Whether he was painting a mural in tempera, designing a mosaic on a library facade, or building his own house by hand, O'Gorman approached the task with painstaking attention to detail that awed many and likely unnerved others. Last year marked the centenary of the artist's birth. It was his fate to belong to a generation that followed and labored beneath the shadow of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. But unlike peers of La Ruptura, who strove to break with the tradition of narrative, historical art, O'Gorman preferred to operate within inherited boundaries. He produced a large body of work equal in quality to that of the Big Three muralists, and which in recent years has enjoyed renewed attention. In 1999, the Grupo Pinanciero Bital, which owns an important mural by the artist, issued a stunning, full-color monograph, edited by Sandro Landucci Lerdo de Tejada. O'Gorman contains an introduction by Elena Poniatowska and definitive essays by people who knew the artist well. Six years later, to coincide with the centenary, the Fomento Cultural Banamex and the national cultural foundation, Conaculta, sponsored a sweeping retrospective exhibition of easel-sized works, murals, sketch books, preparatory cartoons, and architectural drawings. This spectacular show, held at the Palacio Iturbide In the historic district of the capital, emerged as the cultural highlight of the year and reinforced, once again, O'Gorman's stature both as an architect of considerable vision and an immensely gifted painter of murals, portraits, and landscapes.

O'Gorman inherited the impulse to paint from his father, Cecil Crawford O'Gorman, a Dublin-trained mining engineer, who came to Mexico in 1898 to work for a British mining company. Soon after his arrival in Mexico, the young engineer married his cousin, Encarnacion O'Gorman, by whom he had four children: Juan, Edmundo, Margarita, and Tomas. For a time he pursued his profession at mines near Pachuca and Guanajuato, but in the wake of the Mexican Revolution he turned to painting. He succeeded in making a decent living doing watercolor and tempera portraits of prominent members of Mexican society as well as landscapes and interior murals, including one at the family home in the San Angel district of Mexico City. He periodically showed at local galleries and posthumously received the honor of a solo exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Cecil O'Gorman was a stern disciplinarian in the Victorian mold. He conversed with his children in English, insisted on home schooling them until age ten, and meted out corporal punishment for the smallest infractions. Young Juan, by nature a precocious, free spirit who loved to play the piano, read history books, and demonstrate his prodigious memory, came to detest his iron-willed father but nonetheless absorbed a great deal from watching him paint. By his teenage years, he was able to produce meticulous likenesses of near-equal quality. Despite the considerable guidance he received from his elder, out of resentment, O'Gorman later made a determined effort to credit others as his teachers. He often identified Antonio Ruiz, a neighbor and professional artist, as the source of his knowledge of tempera painting. And even though he'd witnessed his father execute frescoes, he would claim that Ramon Alba Guadarrama, a Rivera assistant, had shared with him the intricacies of that demanding technique. And then there was Rivera himself who, by example, conveyed to the young man the full potential of narrative painting executed on a grand scale. Over the years, O'Gorman never failed to identify Diego as "mi gran maestro."

O'Gorman attended La Veronica, a preparatory school then known as the Colegio Franco-Ingles. At this Jesuit school he received his first exposure to anarcho-syndicalist ideas from a professor who had his students read Proudhon on the sources of poverty. …