The murals painted by José Chávez Morado in Ciudad Universitaria are a window to his ideas and vision of progress during the first part of the 20th century in Mexico, as well as a proof of his social commitment.
"At that time, all the directors and important people in the Faculty of Sciences were thinking about atomic energy, they saw it as the future. It was what they wanted to bet on most in terms of research," says Jorge Alberto Barajas Tinoco, a student of the Postgraduate in Art History at UNAM, "to the extent that they bought a particle accelerator, model Tandem Van de Graaff. Carlos Lazo boasts a lot about this, saying that he convinced President Miguel Alemán to buy this device".
The pieces -together with The Return of Quetzalcoatl, currently located in the Architecture Graduate School- were conceived to adorn the Science Faculty and were the first major commission in Chávez Morado's career. "Previously, he had already done some murals in Jalapa and Hidalgo, but not of this magnitude. Besides, they are outdoor murals, so they have to look for solutions so that they can withstand the inclemency of the weather, that is to say, that they can withstand being outdoors", the specialist explained.
According to Barajas Tinoco, the themes captured in Science and Work and The Conquest of Energy are "a bit of his own and a bit of Carlos Lazo's -then-general manager of Ciudad Universitaria's Works-. He advocated for murals because Mario Pani -one of the architects who conceived the project- did not like the idea, he wanted everything to be cleaner. Lazo made a program for the muralists and, in a way, set out the themes that could be touched upon. Among them, Lazo wanted to talk about the history of the University, from the Pontifical University to the present day, that the people who were participating in this initiative would also be projected and, above all, that allegorical motifs concerning science and research would be projected. Depending on where the murals were going to be placed, the theme was chosen".
Science and Work by Jose Chavez Morado
Unlike his other murals, which deal with progress or the cosmic race, La ciencia y el trabajo is a critique by José Chávez Morado of how the Ciudad Universitaria project was developed.
"This mural is part of the theme that Carlos Lazo had imposed on them to paint the history of the University and the characters that participate in it Lazo appears almost at the end. Chávez Morado managed to include a rather harsh social criticism, you have to be very observant to grasp it. This made that, perhaps, Carlos Lazo did not realize it, he thought it was very good", recalls Jorge Alberto Barajas and adds:
"Chávez Morado had very socialist inclinations, of supporting the neediest and teaching, this went very well with the political inclinations of the architect in charge of the Faculty of Sciences, Raúl Cacho was part of the Union of Socialist Architects. They understood each other well and I think it was a good match for this mural.
For this piece, the technique known at the time as Vinylite, which is currently marketed as vinyl paint, was used. This choice, says Barajas, is interesting because "the symbolic allegories of the myths are made with mosaic, while this mural that speaks of the modern is made with a technique that is being tested at the moment. The choice of materials has to do with the ideas of the mural. At that time it was very difficult to treat because they had to mix the pigments with powders and acetone, this cooled the palette a lot and made the painters' hands hurt, it dried very quickly. Chávez Morado said that it was torture to paint with this technique".
Science and work are made up of several vignettes. The first part shows some peasants with their backs turned; this figure, argues the researcher, portrays "the ejido owners of these lands who were dispossessed of the land where they had been for many years. Then we see in a second moment these same peasants being part of the construction of Ciudad Universitaria".
"In this sense, for example, Raul Cacho made a whole housing program around the Copilco area for these ejidatarios who had been dispossessed. Somehow in the speeches, for example, Carlos Lazo paints it very optimistically: we are giving them work and housing, but we know that it is not always as ideal or idealized as it is said in the speeches. Chávez Morado knew this and that is where he begins to insert this criticism".
The theme of the work advances with the presence in the next vignette of the architects who designed the great university project, to then move on to a third moment that shows "the people from the Faculty of Sciences, who at that time had great political weight within the University, there is also the director of the Institute of Physics and at the end of them is Carlos Lazo, as if pointing towards progress where the Van de Graaff particle accelerator is".
Barajas Tinoco emphasizes that behind these scientists "the peasants are still there but portrayed in a somewhat spectral way as if they had already finished building Ciudad Universitaria, but they are disappearing behind scientific progress. This is the strong criticism, as I interpret it, that Chávez Morado makes: the people who built Ciudad Universitaria will not be able to participate in it, they will disappear behind all this technocratic scientific progress that was being forged during Miguel Alemán's six-year term".
"Chávez Morado had a very strong vocation to help society, for example, he participated in the Taller de Gráfica popular making pamphlets and a lot of engravings because that was what could reach the masses, he had this very socialist idea of being able to criticize politics and other things that did not seem fair to him. He considers this mural as lost in the 1990s, he says that due to the weathering and vandalism he suffered in different strikes, for him this mural no longer existed. However, we still have it with many restorations and now it has a glass that protects it".
The Conquest of Energy by Jose Chavez Morado
Currently located in the auditorium of the old Science Faculty and made with the Venetian mosaic technique, it shows a group of men advancing from ignorance to progress due to a Promethean fire, passing from darkness to light thanks to an atom.
For Barajas Tinoco, the mural "is an allegory to the myth of Prometheus, a theme that has been of great interest to artists since the beginning of muralism, such as Orozco. We see a procession, a succession of images. First, there are some frightened men behind some dry trees who are being besieged by a skeleton, which could be the god Tezcatlipoca".
"From there we go to a man who is stealing the fire, he could be the first Prometheus, and he passes it to a procession of men who are walking a little more upright each time. It's this idea that fire was an important part of the development of mankind and the development of the sciences. That symbolizes the fire of Prometheus: giving the science of knowledge to men. Finally, we see a figure of motherhood that is sheltering a sick man, that same man unfolds and levitates towards this idea of progress."
The researcher highlights the way the atom is presented, a reference to the Faculty of Sciences, the place where the composition was originally located:
"The Faculty of Science at that time is progress, that's why we see an atom floating. This fire that has been stolen is representing atomic energy, it is an idea from the 50s of the last century. After the atomic bomb, there are certain campaigns to think of atomic energy as something good, which has its positive side because it will give inexhaustible energy, it was believed that it would serve to make crops grow faster -that is why first it is dry and at the end, we see it with fruits- and to cure diseases such as cancer, in those years research on chemotherapies began. There is a whole campaign so that atomic energy is not so stigmatized after the bomb. That is being captured in this mural.
"It's not just the Faculty of Science that is full of these allusions to the progress of atomic energy. In the Central Library, there is an atom on one of the walls. It is everywhere, even in the Museum of Anthropology, if you check the column of the fountain there is an atom. That one was also made by Chávez Morado, together with his brother Tomás Chávez. It is everywhere at that time, many people meddle in this subject. Some of them go to Bikini Atoll to see the explosions".
The expert concluded by stressing that these murals are an invitation to discover the history of Ciudad Universitaria and each one of us as university students: "To approach and question who these people are, to know how the University was formed. Sometimes we take it for granted, but if we observe and investigate we can come up with interesting ideas about the history of the University and muralism".