It was 1949, a year still in transition from post-revolutionary Mexico to a plan for a modern nation. The city grew towards the green and lacustrine valley in decline. Juan O’Gorman, then 44 years old, was finishing the oil painting “Mexico City”, a portentous and detailed painting of the perspective towards the east of the city from the highest possible point of the Monument to the Revolution.
In the foreground, white hands holding a 1540 map attributed to cartographer Alonso de Santa Cruz. It shows the urban projection of the recently conquered city. In the second instance, a brown-skinned mason holds a masonry trowel and raises two walls, one of red brick and the other of gray stone, probably volcanic. Behind it grows the Mexico City of the 20th century, on whose backs the metal frameworks of new buildings, modernity, appear here and there, while further down the still kind valley that allows a perfect view of two snow-capped volcanoes.
It is the work of an artist who was first an architect, a creator whose prominence has been valued more over the years, who, with few laurels, according to the versions: he made sure to die in three different ways – with a bullet, by poisoning and by strangulation. His suicide culminated on January 18, 1982, exactly 40 years ago.
A son of the Revolution
“Juan O’Gorman revolutionized the architecture of Mexico, he was a son of the Revolution, a very critical, cultured man, but also with a great social commitment,” says teacher Adriana Sandoval, director of the Espacio Nancarrow-O’Gorman Foundation. , specialist in the work of the artist.
“He was an admirer of the Revolution in the sense that it promised a better life condition for the great majority. One of his most important projects was the primary schools created during the Secretary of Public Education of Narciso Bassols (from 1931 to 1934). He built schools on the outskirts of Mexico City in the 20th century: Vallejo, Coyoacán, la Industrial, neighborhoods that were just beginning to be traced, and O’Gorman deposited those schools to dignify the education of the children of workers and peasants, because they took classes in truly terrible places. And Juan made his architecture a solution”, reflects the specialist.
And it is that, Sandoval believes, O’Gorman’s work could not be dimensioned in its time as it should “because it became a critical voice, a kind of conscience that reminded public servants and institutions that they were indebted to the Mexican people. O’Gorman and many colleagues became a kind of residual generation, they became uncomfortable for the vision of the country”.
The curator explains that it is precisely in the painting “Mexico City” where “the presence of the mason on the canvas speaks to us of O’Gorman’s acknowledgment of the invisible classes. He narrates in the painting that these are the hands that have built the pretentious ambitions of modernity”.
For her part, for Dr. Julieta Ortiz Gaitán, a researcher at the UNAM’s Institute of Aesthetic Research, “O’Gorman, since he began to practice, challenged ornamental architecture that can still be said to be the Porfirian turn-of-the-century remnants and earlier. He fought for functionalist architecture to make decent housing for the marginalized classes. All this caused him problems in the environment in which he moved, this duality was a constant in his life and work”.
The researcher reflects that “he saw in capitalist society an excessive growth of cities. His tempera paintings, which are surrealist in spirit, denote these monstrosities that were brewing, like a premonition, of terrible factories invading everything, garbage piled up everywhere and the small houses of the towns, abandoned and defenseless. He pointed this out very incisively and very bitterly until the end of his days.”
Elevate your work as heritage
Finally, both experts are asked if they consider that the work of Juan O’Gorman should be included in the select list of Artistic Monuments together with Velasco, Rivera, Orozco, Dr. Atl, Siquerios, Kahlo, Herrán, Varo, Izquierdo and Peace. Both agree in the affirmative.
“Of course. It should be considered a national heritage, because it should be noted that a good part of his easel work is part of the Citibanamex collection. His work should be considered as such so that he is not alienated and a bad decision is not going to be made”, says Ortiz Gaitán.
Adriana Sandoval nods. He says that O’Gorman “is the only architect who is in the Roundabout of Illustrious Persons and is a pillar of our country in the creative field. Although I don’t know to what extent he would have liked to be so recognized. I believe that the greatest recognition that can be given is with a social architecture, committed and with values”.