The artistic heritage of Mexican architect and painter Juan O'Gorman

With his work "The Historical Representation of Culture" Juan O'Gorman defined the landscape of Ciudad Universitaria. In libraries, schools, and public murals are part of the artistic heritage of Mexican architect and painter Juan O'Gorman.

The artistic heritage of Mexican architect and painter Juan O'Gorman
Passionate about his country and future; Juan O'Gorman was one of the first to anticipate the ecological disaster we are living through. Image: UNAM

The legacy of architect Juan O'Gorman was that of a visionary artist, with a deep love for Mexico, who showed its beauty beyond stereotypes and whose work is part of the Ciudad Universitaria circuit (considered World Heritage of Humanity), said Julieta Ortiz Gaitan, from UNAM's Institute of Aesthetic Research. Remembering him on the 40th anniversary of his death (January 18), the art history expert said that as a follower of Le Corbusier he put into practice the idea of an austere architecture that followed basic principles, with constructions elevated from the ground, free facades, interior space without compartmentalization and habitable rooftops.

O'Gorman was a very complete artist of the first half of the 20th century in Mexico, as he was also a painter. As an architect, his work was very significant because it gave birth to functionalist architecture, which set aside the whole concept of architecture full of ornaments. Under these principles, he built great projects, among them 26 elementary schools in Mexico City, his own house in San Jeronimo (which was demolished years later), the renowned Casa Estudio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum (his great friends), and the Central Library of Ciudad Universitaria (CU).

Born in 1905 in Coyoacán, he was the son of the Irishman Cecil Crawford O'Gorman and brother of the renowned historian Edmundo O'Gorman. He studied architecture at the San Carlos Academy and the Faculty of Architecture at UNAM. He joined the construction of CU, which marks a milestone in architecture by integrating plastic arts with architecture, painting, and sculpture. With his work "The Historical Representation of Culture" he defined the landscape of this house of studies, where he showed his love for Mexico's cultural legacy, without stereotypes.

Mexican architect and painter Juan O'Gorman
Mexican architect and painter Juan O'Gorman. Photo: UNAM

His creation measures almost four thousand square meters and each face of the building narrates a historical stage of our country; 99 percent of the mural is made with 150 types of stones of different kinds and colors, and only for the blue color crushed glass was used. "It is a work of art and he went all over the Republic getting colored stones to cover the Library because he thought -and he was not wrong- that for a mural that was outdoors he should use a technique resistant to rain, air, pollution, and that is why he chose mosaics, which are tesserae, an ancient technique," recalled the researcher.

It is still possible to admire part of his public work on Universidad Avenue and Eje Central: the mural "Canción a la Patria", where the offices of the then Secretariat of Communications and Transportation were located, a building affected by the 1985 and 2017 earthquakes. Currently, the way to rescue this legacy is being studied. O'Gorman helped in the planning of the Anahuacalli Museum and, despite its success and recognition, in 1937 he left architecture to devote himself entirely to painting, so he made the "Altarpiece of Independence" as well as the "Altarpiece of the Revolution (Effective Suffrage not reelection)", which is in the National Museum of History of Chapultepec Castle.

A replica of "The Conquest of the Air by Man" can also be seen at the Mexico City Airport, the only reconstructed part of the work that the artist created in 1937 where he represented Hitler and Mussolini as snakes, for which the Mexican authorities asked him to change it; upon his refusal, it was dismantled. The expert in artistic languages related to nationalism and identity highlighted his vision of the future, which was reflected in his painting where he showed what he learned at the Academy of San Carlos to express his social and nationalist concerns.

Ciudad Universitaria
Ciudad Universitaria. Image: UNAM
"Although his father was a very good tempera painter, O'Gorman always said that his true master had been Diego Rivera, also because of his affinity with Diego and Frida in their socialist ideals, and not only that, but the taste they had for revaluing everything Mexican in terms of art and culture," said the university professor.

In addition to the large murals, his small-format works include pieces such as "Recuerdo de los Remedios" (1943) or his "Autorretrato" (1950), the latter where he reflected his duality as an architect and painter. There are also multiple works and drawings by his daughter and his wife, some of which can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art, or appreciate prints in catalogs of the National Institute of Fine Arts, the National Institute of Anthropology, and History of Fomento Cultural Banamex.

These pieces are more difficult to appreciate because they are private, several of them commissioned by families. However, the greatness of his large-format creations, especially those seen in Ciudad Universitaria, led O'Gorman's work to be considered Mexico's Artistic Heritage and his work in the Central Library to form part of the central area of Ciudad Universitaria, considered a World Heritage Site. At the end of his life, his oil paintings express great anguish in their forms, motifs, and dreamlike landscapes, very fanciful, and he was among the first to anticipate the ecological disaster we are living through by putting in his pieces the factories poisoning the landscape, in what he called the future of capitalist society.

O'Gorman at work in Ciudad Universitaria.
O'Gorman at work in Ciudad Universitaria. Photo: UNAM

"Little by little he realized how urbanization without planning was advancing indiscriminately and seeing how the environment was deteriorating and, as he was against the consumer and capitalist society, he saw the factories polluting with their chimneys; he was well aware of what was happening, and nobody paid attention to him, but the valuable thing about art is that the testimonies of the work remain," reflected Ortiz Gaitán.

In his last days the artist was depressed because his house in San Jeronimo, which was inserted in the lava and had numerous mosaic motifs, was destroyed by whoever bought the property; to this was added the death of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, so he felt that his life was in decline and also that he was misunderstood by several of his colleagues because of his ideological positions, facts that led him to decide to end his existence.

Juan O'Gorman, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo.
Juan O'Gorman, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. Image: UNAM