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 Juan O'Gorman  (1905 - 1982)

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Lived/Active: Unknown Country/United States/Mexico      Known for: murals, architecture

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Biography from Art Cellar Exchange:
Juan O'Gorman (1905-1982) was a multi-talented artist who created works in Mexico throughout the twentieth century. Known primarily as an architect, Juan O'Gorman is also known for his painted and mosaic murals for which he received many accolades.

Juan O'Gorman was born the eldest son of an Irish father and a Mexican mother. His father, Cecil Crawford O'Gorman, was a well-known Irish painter. O'Gorman graduated from the architecture school at the National University in Mexico City. While a student, O'Gorman was inspired by the rationalist influence of his teachers in Mexico and European architects. During his architectural studies, O'Gorman also discovered the writings of Le Corbusier in his book, Towards a New Architecture. As a result of these early influences, O'Gorman produced designs adapting the International Style to Mexican requirements. The International Style emphasized the expression of structure, the lighting of mass and the enclosure of dynamic spaces.

Throughout his life, O'Gorman was very active in both politics and art. As a member of the Communist Party his adherence to a functionalist aesthetic, like that of the International Style, was cemented and resulted in designs for a number of houses executed in an austere almost featureless style that remained faithful to Le Corbusier's ideas of plasticity.

With his first professional salary, O'Gorman purchased two tennis courts in front of an old hotel in San Angel. There he constructed a house/studio for his father. This house caused quite a sensation because it was the first time that a construction completely derived from utilitarian function had been seen in Mexico. All the facilities - from the lights to the toilet - were visible and he left all the slabs of concrete exposed. All of the construction on this house took place with minimal work and expense.

Because of their affinity in political ideas (i.e. Communism) and culture, Juan O'Gorman maintained a great friendship with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. At Juan's request, Diego came to visit the house/studio upon its completion. To Diego, the house was not only interesting but he thought it a beautiful house aesthetically and immediately requested the construction of a house with the same distinguishing features. Of course, it was an honor for O'Gorman to comply with Rivera's request.

Other major architectural projects that O'Gorman was involved in were the construction of 29 elementary and secondary schools in Mexico, as well as a house for himself and his family outside of Mexico City that he built between 1953 and 1956. However, in between these constructions, during the 1940s, O'Gorman began to question the application of functionalism in Mexico and temporarily abandoned architecture in favor of mural construction and painting between 1942 and 1948.

The Mexican Mural Movement was the most significant art movement in Latin America during the twentieth century. José Vasconcelos (Minister of Education) set up the mural programs in Mexico. The idea was, rather than create with an exhibition or a degree in view, architects, painters and sculptors should make and decorate buildings. Thus, the mural program was set up in order to bring art into the lives of Mexican people in a unique way. Vasconcelos believed that by making Mexico have art that belonged to the people, he would raise the spirits of a nation whose recent history was full of suffering. In general, muralists validated pre-conquest indigenous culture, revolutionary symbolism and introduced a new visual language that represented social and nationalist themes, religious motifs and a pro-Hispanic worldview. In general, the murals reflected the government's nationalistic sentiments, denouncing European influence and celebrating Mexican heritage from early Mesoamerica through the Revolution.

Two of Mexico's most famous mural painters, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, were great influences on Juan O'Gorman. This influence is visible in many of his mural projects where the imagery reflects the history of Mexico, the Mexican Revolution, the history of the Mayas and the Aztecs and other political issues such as the separation of church and state.

O'Gorman's most famous mural project was completed at La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City. He presented the University with an elaborate mosaic façade on all four sides of the library. The mosaic mural represents a history of Mexican culture.

El Borracho is a mural study for one of Juan O'Gorman's early mural projects. This drawing is typical of his compositions in that it has a strong sense of social realism combined with superb technique. The attention to detail is typical of O'Gorman's mural compositions. His works all contain miniature qualities with a perfect finish, as does this preliminary drawing for what was destined to be a major project.

Juan O'Gorman produced art throughout his life and in 1982 was rewarded for his skill and a lifetime of product with el Premio Nacional de Arte - the national prize for art. Following the demolition of his home in San Jeronimo, a grotto for art and living that he built section by section, Juan sunk into a deep depression. As a result of this depression the artist embarked on a 40-day purification fast that left him debilitated physically and spiritually. He never fully recovered. After receiving el Premio Nacional de Arte Juan O'Gorman committed suicide in 1982. He was, without a doubt, a great muralist recognized during and after his lifetime for his artistic as well as cultural works.

--Gretchen Van Camp
Latin American Art
Art Cellar Exchange

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