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CR: The New Centennial Review 4.2 (2004) 185-217

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Angels and Prostitutes

José Clement Orozco's Catharsis and the Politics of Female Allegory in 1930s Mexico1

Dartmouth College

Entering the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City (figure 1), one is immediately ensconced in the rosy light of its lavish pink-marble interior. Ridiculed by critics as an architectural monstrosity, the Palace is nonetheless a hallowed site of Mexican cultural patrimony. It is a heritage site in and of itself, as well as home to the national symphony and ballet, a museum, and some of the most well-known and widely viewed monumental paintings by los cuatro grandes—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo.2 Ascending the central staircase from the lower lobby toward the murals3 on the second and third floors has become a ritual of heritage for citizens and tourists alike. But the anticipation and excitement of the pilgrimage can also provoke surprise and even shock when one reaches the uppermost level. Here, the narrow space afforded by the balcony-like corridors forces the viewer into intimate congress with enormous nude women whose nakedness is closer to pornography than the decorous nudity found in most public art.4 This is particularly the case with Orozco's Catharsis (1934) (Figure 2), in which the most prominent figure, a green-hued prostitute, lies on her back, upside down and spread-eagle, just [End Page 185]

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Figure 1
Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City, Mexico, 2002. Photograph by Mary K. Coffey.

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Figure 2
José Clemente Orozco, Catharsis, 1934, fresco, Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City. Photograph by Mary K. Coffey.
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to the left of the fresco's center. Foreshortened and positioned at a diagonal that draws the eye up from the base of the image, "La Chata," as she is known, is a compositional device—the point of visual entry and the means for directing the viewer's gaze through the formal and iconographic logic of the artist's violent and confounding vision of humanity on the brink. But, as a specific, albeit generic, icon—a prostitute—she also signifies social disorder. And while it is quite common to encounter prostitutes in the painted canvases of vanguard artists, it is highly unusual to confront the dysgenic body of the whore within the state-sanctified spaces of civic ritual.

Our environment is littered with images of scantily clad women structured according to the psychosexual dynamics of the hetero-normative male gaze, and yet this painted image still has the ability to astound and even offend. It is a difficult image to look at, and this difficulty arises as much from the overt content of its message as from the architectonics of its formal properties. For just as the physical disposition of "La Chata"'s voluptuous body serves as an eroticized vector pulling the eye into the composition, her hideous pallor and awkward posture repulse the gaze, blocking the libidinal and visual processes it seems to entice. Further, if one does traverse the body's landscape into the scene, the eye is immediately and violently thrown off balance by a cleft composition that pulls its focus in opposite directions. Thus, both the formal and iconographic properties of the painting seem to work at cross-purposes, making the image as a whole difficult to engage in anything other than visceral terms.

Perhaps this accounts for the lack of critical exegesis of Catharsis. Despite the fact that it is one of the most reproduced murals in Orozco's oeuvre, it has occasioned very little scholarly analysis. There is a tendency to discuss the mural in terms of its aesthetic failure or success, to identify its stylistic influences, or to locate it within the artist's development as a painter of monumental scale. However, critics in general eschew interpretation, particularly with regard to the artist's gender politics.

I suggest that this silence...