Historic Painting: “Katharsis” by José Clemente Orozco, 1934.

katharsis orozco photo by wolfgang sauber

This startling picture looks like it could be the cover of a postmodern science fiction graphic novel from modern times, and its graphic images strike chords very relevant today: leering humanoid machines that look like robots, guns and weapons suggesting war, and a fiery background reminiscent of Hell or perhaps nuclear destruction. Indeed when I first saw this the first thing I thought of was The Terminator, which gains much of its power from its raw poke at human anxieties regarding machines, warfare and morality. In fact this picture–it’s only a detail of a much larger mural–is more than 80 years old. The full artwork is called Katharsis, and it was painted in 1934 by José Clemente Orozco, Mexico’s preeminent mural painter of the early 20th century. Katharsis adorns the walls of the gallery floor of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, Mexico.

Katharsis is a complex work. As you can see from this detail, its themes involve individuality, humanity, war, destruction and the implications of technology on the human species. Is it still possible, in an era of mass media, mass production and mass destruction, for a human being to maintain their individuality, and to find spiritual or religious redemption? This very deep question becomes even more profound if you know that Orozco witnessed and took part in the bloody Mexican Revolution which raged at its height about 20 years before he painted Katharsis. The art movement of which Orozco was a part, Mexican Muralism, sought to interpret the Revolution and its social changes through art, but as you can guess Orozco had some serious misgivings about where modernity was leading Mexico. Now consider that Katharsis was painted five years before the outbreak of World War II, a conflict not merely incredibly destructive, but which ended with the deployment of a technology that brought with it serious questions about the very survival of the human race. You could say Katharsis was ahead of its time. We continue to struggle with these questions, perhaps now more than ever, as technology becomes even more intertwined with our personal and spiritual identities–and of course the destructive implications of technology have not gone away.

Simply put, there’s a whole lot to think about here. Orozco, who died in 1949, was also the painter of a number of other stunning murals, including a famous one adorning Baker Memorial Library at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The photo detail of the mural was taken by Wolfgang Sauber and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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