Note: Mask with Jade Necklace is part of Orozco’s series Los Teules (la conquista de México) [The White Gods, (The Conquest of Mexico)], which was exhibited in 1947 at El Colegio Nacional in Mexico City. Orozco joined this institution, focused on the promotion of medicine and science, in 1943 as a founding member, with the promise to present yearly exhibitions. In Los Teules, his fifth show there, Orozco undertook an epic theme: the conquest of Mexico and downfall of the Aztec Empire.
This was not the first time that Orozco depicted this historical event. Indeed, the Spanish conquest of Mexico (1519-21) preoccupied Orozco for much of his career, and his murals at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Baker Library at Dartmouth College, and Hospicio Cabañas all portray themes relating to the Spanish invasion. However, Los Teules was a significant departure from these earlier works, both in form and content. The exhibition comprised individual drawings and paintings, based on the chronicle Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España [The True History of the Conquest of New Spain] (published in 1632) by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador who accompanied Hernán Cortés on his expedition to Mexico. “Los Teules” translates to “the White Gods” and refers to the idea, according to Spanish documents, that the indigenous people initially thought of the Spanish conquistadors as deities, come to fulfill a prophecy of the downfall of the Aztec capitol Tenochtitlán. With this series, Orozco depicts moments of the conquest, but does not offer the viewer a moralistic narrative. Rather, Orozco chose to emphasize a more universal and visceral aspect of this event: the incredible violence and human suffering.
Unlike the work of his contemporary, Diego Rivera, Orozco’s artistic output does not portray the optimistic belief in the power of revolution, the exaltation of traditional Mexican culture, nor a positive progression of human civilization. Orozco’s bleaker outlook translated into many scenes of pain and violence, of humans trapped in cycles of bloodshed. This viewpoint culminates in Los Teules, where the images of extreme atrocities, committed by both the Spanish and Aztecs, convey the enormous scale of the conquest and the profound human suffering that resulted. The renowned Mexican historian and art critic Justino Fernández (1904 – 1972) reviewed the exhibition in 1947 and wrote that, regarding the theme of the conquest,
Orozco, by his genius, has been the only one capable of transforming this idea into a prodigious artistic statement in which each brushstroke vibrates with human pain . . . Orozco does not declare himself to be anti-Spanish or anti-indigenous . . . but rather, comes to tell us, in the best way that can be expressed today, what the Conquest means: human pain, pain for one and all, flesh and spirit torn apart, extreme anguish and recklessness.Justino Fernández, “Los Teules de Orozco,” Universidad de México, vol. II, no. 13, Oct. 1947, n.p. (translated from Spanish)
Mask with Jade Necklace was one of the seven artworks chosen by Fernández to illustrate his review. Despite the brutal subject matter, this show was a great success for Orozco, with over three thousand visitors recorded in El Colegio Nacional’s registers.
Mask with Jade Necklace depicts the head of a slain Aztec warrior, his face covered by a mask. The forehead and cheek of the mask are slashed, emphasized by the rope of jade beads which falls in disarray into the cavity created by this warrior’s foe. Jade was long considered precious in Mesoamerican culture, and by the time of the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs considered it to be their most valuable substance. It represented life and purity, and its use was reserved for the adornment of gods and royalty. Thus, the warrior is understood to be nobility. The head fills the composition and is portrayed horizontally as it would have fallen on the ground. The art historian Dafne Cruz Porchini writes,
The explicit ferocity of the work is accentuated by the monumental proportions and its almost monochrome palette, with its surface of gray, white, and blue tones. In the absence of other, more descriptive elements, the viewer’s gaze concentrates itself on the image’s realism and the rigor mortis of the painting’s subject.Dafne Cruz Porchini, “José Clemente Orozco: The Final Years (1945 – 1949),” José Clemente Orozco: Final Cut, Arizona State University Art Museum, 2020, p. 72
The mask provides the warrior anonymity; he is symbolic of the Aztecs’ fall.
Orozco’s use of experimental materials is essential to the success of Los Teules. For the paintings he used pyroxylin paint, an industrial nitrocellulose paint often used for automobiles. Its opacity, thickness, and short drying time appealed to Orozco and allowed for a bold and gestural application of paint, which lends the works an abstract quality and enhances the frenetic energy present in the battle scenes. In Mask with Jade Necklace, the application of paint enhances the mask’s weight and sculptural quality, and the beautiful green color of the jade beads stands out against the largely neutral palette.
While Los Teules is now 75 years old, and portrays events of 500 years ago, Orozco’s vision remains extraordinarily relevant. On the occasion of Orozco’s 1947 National Exhibition, the diplomat and writer Antonio Castro Leal wrote a text dedicated to the artist, whose words still deeply resonate:
Orozco is not an easy or comforting painter, sedating and placating; all the great art of our time has already lost, perhaps forever, these characteristics. Our world is at the center of a whirlpool of inquietudes, menaced by negation and the void. This world – so upset, confusing, and tragic – no painter of our time has achieved an expression more heartbreaking and disturbing than José Clemente Orozco.Antonio Castro Leal, quoted in Raquel Tibol, José Clemente Orozco: una vida para el arte. Breve historia documental, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 1996, p. 214
Justino Fernández, “Los Teules de Orozco,” Universidad de México, vol. II, no. 13, Oct. 1947
Antonio Castro Leal, quoted in Raquel Tibol, José Clemente Orozco: una vida para el arte. Breve historia documental, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 1996
Dafne Cruz Porchini, “José Clement Orozco and the Series Los Teules (1947)” Orozco y Los Teules, 1947, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes / Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, Mexico City, 2017
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Jade in Mesoamerica.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jade2/hd_jade2.htm (October 2001)
Dafne Cruz Porchini, “José Clemente Orozco: The Final Years (1945 – 1949),” José Clemente Orozco: Final Cut, Arizona State University Art Museum, 2020
- Estate of the artist
- Justino Fernández, “Los Teules de Orozco,” Universidad de México, vol. II, no. 13, Oct. 1947, illus. in black and white (published vertically), n.p.
- José Clemente Orozco, translated by Robert C. Stephenson, José Clemente Orozco: An Autobiography, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1962, illus. in color full page, plate between pp. 156-157
- Albert Kostenevich, Orozco, from the editorial “The Soviet Painter,” Leningrad, 1969, p. 158
- Luis Cardoza y Aragón, José Clemente Orozco, Mexico City, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1974, no. 41, illus. in black and white
- Mexico City, El Colegio Nacional, José Clemente Orozco: Los Teules, Oct. – Nov. 1947
- Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Art Mexicain du Précolombien à Nos Jours, May – June 1952, no. 987 in the catalogue
- Cambridge, MA, Fogg Museum, J.C. Orozco Memorial Exhibition, organized in collaboration with The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Dec. 3, 1952 – Jan. 11, 1953, no. 13 in the catalogue. From Jan. 1953 – Dec. 1953 this exhibition traveled to The Art Gallery of Toronto, Canada, the Delaware Art Center, Wilmington, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Department of Municipal Art, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
- Guadalajara, Mexico, Museo Taller-Orozco, 1955
- Mexico City, Museo José Clemente Orozco, 1960
- Mexico City, Hotel Maria-Isabel, 1962 – 1969
- Mexico City, Museo José Clemente Orozco, 1970
- Claremont, CA, Pomona College and Chicano Studies Center of the Claremont Colleges, Paintings and Drawings by José Clemente Orozco, Sept. 11 – 14, 1984
- Tempe, AZ, Arizona State University Art Museum, José Clemente Orozco: The Final Cut, Jan. 30 – June 5, 2021, no. 13, illus. in color in the catalogue pp. 98-99, detail of the painting illus. pp. 80 – 81.