‘Men of Fire’: Art of Turmoil and Torment

Pollock was exposed to Orozco at the New School in New York City
The completed Orozco mural which is at Dartmouth College.

   It may seem hyperbolical to say it, but the exhibition “Men of Fire” at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs is incendiary in many ways, both obvious and implied. With fiery personalities and working styles, both Jackson Pollock and Jose Clemente Orozco resorted to flame-like forms and figures in their working styles in the 1930s.
    Pollock was exposed to Orozco at the New School in New York City while he was assisting Thomas Hart Benton in painting murals there, and traveled to Dartmouth College to see one of Orozco’s most powerful mural cycles, which only strengthens the visual bonds these two artists forged during that decade.
    In the 1930s, it seemed that every artist was involved in a mural project. New Deal programs during the Great Depression such as the Public Works of Art project placed murals in government buildings such as courthouses, schools, and post offices, but they were privately commissioned by many institutions and individuals as well.
    A number of Mexican artists were invited to plan or supervise mural projects because they had been active in reviving their own culture’s tradition of fresco mural painting in the years after the Mexican Revolution.  Orozco was one of three prominent artists who came to the United States to paint, along with Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. He painted murals at Pomona College in California, which Pollock also saw, as well as at the New School before taking on the project at Dartmouth between 1932 and 1934.
    That mural, “The Epic of American Civilization,” which has become one of his most well-known works, attracted widespread attention even at that time. Pollock had seen it by 1936.
    That Pollock was profoundly influenced by the Mexican master is the subject of the current exhibition, on view through Oct. 27 at Pollock-Krasner, which is observing the artist’s centenary. It is called “Men of Fire” after Orozco’s sobriquet, earned from the name of a dramatic mural he did in Guadalajara after returning from the United States.
    The exhibition uses drawings Orozco did for his mural, painted in fresco, a demanding medium using wet plaster that requires a high degree of preparation prior to execution. The drawings are on loan from the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, which helped to organize the show. Pollock is represented by works from institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery.
    According to its organizers, this is the first exhibition to look at this artistic relationship. Pollock was 24 when he made his journey to Dartmouth. Orozco’s frescos show bodies in constant struggle. Included in the exhibition is a study for “Ancient Human Sacrifice,” which shows a ritualistic disembowelment of a hapless splayed victim.
    In the mural cycle it has a counterpart in “Modern Human Sacrifice,” where a soldier’s skeleton is covered in a flag, and wreathes, looking not unlike intestines, to offer him honor as he rots away to the sound of a brass band tribute. It was the kind of post-World War I statement being made all over Europe during that time, but Orozco was likely thinking back more personally to his own experiences fighting in the Mexican Revolution.
    The works in the show are often like this, violent and tortured. Orozco’s are more figural, whereas Pollock seems locked on some primeval source. Human bodies and fauna are defined here and there but often dissolve into some larger jumble. Here, even though Pollock is painting in oil, he seems to have adopted the franker palette of Orozco’s frescos. His “Circle,” circa 1938-1941, has the same violent energy of Caravaggio’s “Medusa” shield painted centuries before.
    There are many powerful moments and it is almost a relief that the show is limited by the size of the house’s first floor and upper hallway. Orozco’s preparatory drawings are more subdued on balance, but the subject matter can be more harrowing. Pollock’s snakes and writhing figures with flames in hot colors indicate their own discomfort.
    This is art of turmoil and torment. While Orozco seems more focused on the exterior toll, Pollock’s work has a more psychological and interior impact.
    Overall, there is a heaviness of spirit and technique that weighs the viewer down. But as a reflection of the zeitgeist of that time and the international upheaval under way in a period of intense technological change and development, it has much resonance today.
    On Saturday at the Pollock-Krasner House, in commemoration of the 56th anniversary of Pollock’s death on Aug. 11, 1956, a group of established and emerging poets will present “Poems for Pollock,” inspired by the artist and his world. The free event, organized by the poet Rosalind Brenner, will begin at 6 p.m.; the museum will open half an hour before for viewing of “Men of Fire.”
    On Sundays this month, there will be three talks related to the exhibition. They include “Pollock’s Art of Prometheus” by Stephen Polcari this week, “ ‘The Walls of My Dreams’: Orozco’s Dartmouth Frescoes” by Sharon Lorenzo on Aug. 19, and “Fanning the Flames of Creativity: Pollock Studies Orozco” by  Lisa Mintz Messinger on Aug. 26. The talks will be held at the Fireplace Project, just north of the house at 851 Springs-Fireplace Road, at 5 p.m. The cost is $5 at the door, free for members.