The Return of Quetzalcoatl by José Chávez Morado

The Return of Quetzalcoatl by José Chávez Morado is located in Ciudad Universitaria; it was created on a 12 by a 4.5-meter wall, with a Venetian mosaic. Plastic integration of the original cultures of the world.

The Return of Quetzalcoatl by José Chávez Morado
José Chávez Morado, The Return of Quetzalcóatl, 1952-1953, enamel mosaic. North wall of the "Alfonso Caso" auditorium (originally Science auditorium), Ciudad Universitaria. Photo: Martín Vargas, 1998. AFMT, IIE - UNAM

When José Chávez Morado unveiled 1952 the mural entitled El Retorno de Quetzalcóatl (The Return of Quetzalcóatl), it captured from a distance - equally - the gaze of students, teachers, and visitors of the then Faculty of Sciences. The original project, explains Jorge Alberto Barajas Tinoco, from UNAM's Graduate Program in Art History, was impressive because it was planned to be seen from a distance in conjunction with the mirror of water at the foot of the figures traveling on a boat.

Its planning was a challenge because, until that moment, muralism had been worked on in constructed buildings and from there a wall was chosen for the mural work. This was a great opportunity for all the painters who participated in the great work that is University City.

For Chávez Morado, these murals were very important, because they were his first big commission. Previously he had already done some in Jalapa and Hidalgo, but not of this magnitude. They are outdoors, so he had to look for solutions so that they would last the inclemency of the weather, that is to say, that the mural could stand to be outdoors.

The material used by the artists to solve the problem was Venetian mosaic, which was chosen for its durability, it lasts a lot outdoors. It is the one used for swimming pools, various fountain decorations, and the like. That is why it attracts their attention and also its chromatic variety.

Chávez Morado previously made a trip to Italy, where he learned these techniques. He thinks that the mosaic is going to be imported. It was a little cheap, but here in Mexico there was already a workshop in Cuernavaca, the Perdomo's workshop, so it was easier. Even Siqueiros was already using larger tesserae, not in the traditional way, and Diego Rivera also used it in the Teatro de los Insurgentes.

The owners of the workshop were very jealous of the recipes, with the pigments and all that. The artists could only go to see a catalog, bring their sketches, and from there choose the colors. Chávez Morado was not there laying the mosaics, the workshop's people came to lay them.

The Venetian mosaic was a solution they arrived at a little quickly, in fact, they later regretted it because they did not like the bright colors very much. They were fine-tuning details to then do better things. University City was a kind of experimental laboratory for the muralists and the architects involved.

Transformations at University City

The Return of Quetzalcoatl, along with the murals The Conquest of Energy and Science and Work were originally conceived to adorn the walls of the then Faculty of Sciences; however, in 1977 the facilities were transformed to house the Architecture postgraduate program and a new building was constructed that radically changed the distant view of Chávez Morado's composition.

According to Cristina López Uribe, a researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, the artist stated after this architectural change that The Return of Quetzalcóatl originally had a better location, with a wide space to be seen and a water mirror that gave a better idea of the sea; but this environment has been destroyed and the mural is now a prisoner among the constructions that were later erected.

However, for Jorge Alberto Barajas Tinoco these changes are inevitable to satisfy the demands of the students of the National University:

"They are modifications that have to be made at the end of the day to meet the needs of the students. I don't think it would have been possible to keep the original set until now, but a better solution could have been found. It is not the same to see it from a short distance, to be able to walk away and appreciate what it would have been like; it does affect the experience. Because even the construction where the library is located is quite peculiar. It is not a square, but a trapeze, so everything was designed for that".

Its themes

Created on a wall measuring 12 by 4.5 meters, The Return of Quetzalcoatl has Quetzalcoatl as its protagonist, represented as a serpent forming a boat. On him travel seven men representing the most ancient civilizations of the world. To the left of the mural is a pyramid crossed by a sword and spears, an image that seeks to symbolize the Conquest of America.

The representatives of the original cultures are, from left to right, an Egyptian, a Franciscan friar -a symbol of Christianity- and behind him a winged figure. He is followed by the central character: a naked man who stands out for his vibrant color and his mask of Ehecatl, god of the wind for several Mesoamerican cultures, and also a reference to Quetzalcoatl. The man in the center is followed by a representative of Mesopotamia, then a Greek one, and then a bodhisattva -a figure from Eastern cultures- and a Muslim, an image of Islam.

The mixture of symbols and the high contrast of their colors were intended to represent the return of the pre-Hispanic culture through Quetzalcoatl, enhanced by the sum of millenary knowledge of other cultures.

The theme of the mural, argues Jorge Alberto Barajas Tinoco, is "a rescue of José Vasconcelos' ideas" that many artists and intellectuals of that time took up in different works. "In this mural of Morado, there is much of the cosmic race, this serpent that leads the representatives of the different races towards a promising future for humanity. This is the symbolic idea of the mural."

In the foreground is Quetzalcoatl in his executive form, which is this god of the wind that leads them towards progress. I had the opportunity to see the sketches and it was a much more elaborate thing that Chávez Morado had in mind: behind this boat, there was going to be an Atlantean holding the world together with a society that is sinking in a sort of raft of Medusa, as in that famous painting by David. I think it was the selection of materials that synthesized all those ideas into something more concrete.

The theme of the mural was not only determined by Chávez Morado, as Barajas Tinoco illustrates, the project started from the program created by the architect Carlos Lazo Barreiro, who was then the general manager of Works of Ciudad Universitaria.

The themes chosen by Chávez Morado for this project are a little bit of him and a little bit of Carlos Lazo. He advocated for murals because Mario Pani -one of the architects who conceived the Ciudad Universitaria project- did not like the idea, he wanted everything to be cleaner. Lazo made a program for the muralists and, in a way, set the themes that could be touched.

Among them, Lazo wanted to talk about the history of the University, from the Pontifical University to the present day, to show the people who were participating in this project and, above all, to have allegorical motifs concerning science and research. Depending on where the murals were to be placed, the theme was chosen.

The painters and architects had a term for it: plastic integration, they worked together so that architecture and plastic would merge, so they did not see themselves as alien. In addition, for them, the landscape was very important, the mirror of water is part of how the mural integrates with the landscape. Chávez Morado had the Plastic Integration Workshop at the Esmeralda School, and with his students, he discussed the best ways to improve that aspect.

It must have been very impressive to see it without all these modifications that were made over the years. In the Historical Archive of the UNAM, there are some very nice pictures of the central campus, which you can see from a distance and it was quite impressive.

Quetzalcoatl - Prometheus: Two Allegories For Science

Figures comparable for the benefits they brought to mankind: Jorge Alberto Barajas, postgraduate in Art History, UNAM

As we walk through Ciudad Universitaria and observe the images that inhabit its walls, we might be surprised to find elements as disparate as a jaguar in full jump, a raft in the shape of a snake, a female entity in blue, or an atomic model floating radiantly.

Those images seem to say little or nothing to us as contemporary viewers. However, if we sharpen our gaze, question them, and follow their clues, we could find interesting stories and meanings, because the history of the University is also the history of its murals.

In 1950, the architect Carlos Lazo, general manager of Ciudad Universitaria, proposed the construction of the new university campus as a problem of integral planning between architecture and the plastic arts.

Under the direction of architects Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, dozens of architects, painters, and sculptors would work in presumed consonance to complete the titanic task of building a new city within a landscape of volcanic rock and endemic vegetation.

The construction of the Faculty of Sciences was in charge of the architects Raúl Cacho, Eugenio Peschard, and Félix Sánchez. Thus, in 1952, José Chávez Morado was commissioned to paint three murals: The Return of Quetzalcóatl, The Conquest of Energy, and Science and Work. On this occasion, we will deal with the first two.

The mural The Return of Quetzalcoatl is located on the south wall of the library of the former Faculty of Science. The Venetian mosaic technique -or glazed mosaic- was chosen for its realization, since this material would resist weathering.

It is worth mentioning that the mural was located in an open space, which could be seen from a distance, giving the optical effect that the raft was floating. Unfortunately, with the architectural modifications made over the years, this has been lost.

In the image, we see a raft in the shape of a feathered serpent carrying different spiritual leaders of ancient civilizations from all over the world. In the foreground, we see a man with red skin, this is Quetzalcoatl in his invocation of Ehecatl, god of the wind.

The figure is shown with his arm outstretched marking the course towards the east. Behind the raft a pyramid can be seen, pierced by a sword and a spear, the rest of the background is wrapped in flames. This return of Quetzalcoatl speaks to us of the return of the pre-Hispanic culture but in the company of other avatars that will enrich the future of all humanity.

It is documented that Carlos Lazo established general conditions for the themes and guidelines for the murals to be painted inside Ciudad Universitaria. Within them, he proposed to capture symbolic expressions that would enhance the work of the University to insert the Mexican nation within a global environment. The return of Quetzalcoatl seems to fulfill these characteristics. The symbolic exhibition in this mural represents humanity with a universal character that is very reminiscent of the idea of cosmic race professed by José Vasconcelos in the 1920s.

In very broad terms, Vasconcelos thought that in Latin America the fusion of all races would take place, where a new universal era of harmony among all mankind would begin. In the mural, this idea is indicated by the raft in the form of a serpent that transports the aforementioned characters.

In addition, this idea is reinforced by the chromatic range within the mural itself, since each figure has the color with which each race is stereotypically represented. The raft of Quetzalcoatl seems to transport humanity to a utopia where destruction and war have been left behind.

On the other hand, with a privileged place for its visibility, the mural The Conquest of Energy is located on the south wall of the Alfonso Caso Auditorium, which was also made with the glazed mosaic technique. As in El retorno de Quetzalcóatl, Chávez Morado followed this same idea of symbolic exposition through allegories. In the manner of a procession, we see in the first panel three men crouching and hiding behind a dry tree being stalked by a jaguar, while a large skeleton covers them with a dark cloak.

In the next scene, a man dressed in animal skin takes fire from a great flare, behind him a procession of increasingly erect men passes the fire from hand to hand. Subsequently, a woman dressed in red holds a dying man in her arms, above them, an atom emits its radiation. Finally, a blue female figure, representing the conquered energy, floats away from the man lying on the ground. The Indian's dry tree now has fruits that symbolize knowledge.

We are before a complex mural in its symbolism and to analyze each one of the elements would exceed the limits of this text. Broadly speaking, we can say that Chávez Morado presents us with an allegory that alludes to a modern adaptation of the myth of Prometheus, that is, about how the fire was stolen from the gods and given to men will lead humanity to progress and the attainment of knowledge. The plot twist that Chávez Morado introduces is the incorporation of the atom and atomic energy, a topic discussed during the time of the construction of Ciudad Universitaria.

Approximately in those years, archeologist Alfonso Caso speaks of Quetzalcoatl as the Mexican Prometheus, equating these two figures for the benefits they brought to humanity in their respective myths.

This idea was possibly taken up by Chávez and captured in the murals we have analyzed. To accentuate this idea, within the same Science complex, there was the well-known "Prometheus Square", where a large sculpture of this mythical figure was erected, made by sculptor Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, which is now located in the new facilities of the Science Faculty.

José Chávez Morado affirmed in some interviews that from the symbols it was possible to launch critical projectiles that would rebound in the present. Perhaps in these two murals, these criticisms are not so obvious -as they would be in the third mural The Science and Work, which deserves a separate analysis.

The two murals analyzed here are united by their symbolic charge as they take up two myths that in Chávez Morado's time were related. In Ciudad Universitaria, a complex plot of power is interwoven between the State and those involved in the project. Through pictorial discourse, an attempt was made to impose an ideology on scientific development and nuclear energy closely linked to the post-war period; a discourse that tried to eradicate the belief of the negative effects of this source of energy and thus convince that it was the correct route towards the progress of humanity.