I spent a good part of this afternoon at the Instituo Cultural Cabañas, like so many of the great cultural institutions in Mexico, housed in a recycled religious institution. Since the 1980s, it has been an art museum of international reputation,housing not only the great Mexican artists (Rivera, Siqueiros, Izquierod, Barragán, Toledo, etc.) but an eclectic collection of international artists — from Marcel Duchamp to Yoko Ono — as well.
The building itself had an interesting history, being considered the finest example of ecclesiastical neo-classical design by the late colonial artist and architect, Manuel Tolsá. It was not a meant as a church, nor a monastery, but as a shelter for destitute children. With the backing of Bishop Juan Cruz Ruiz de Cabañas y Crespo, though, Tolsá was free to over-design. He didn’t live to see the building to completion: 23 courtyards (plenty of room for playground equipment) lined with rooms of various sizes, and a chapel/refractory topped with both doric and ionic columned domes.
Bad timing. The Casa de Caridad y Misericordia opened in 1810, the same year the war for Independence broke out. It was a military barracks for the next seventeen years, finally opening its doors as a shelter in 1829 — on and off. The clean lines and open design made it an ideal military barracks during the troubled early years of the Republic, the kids being tossed into the streets again and again as various generals and caudillos fought for control. After the Reform Wars, it FINALLY was turned over to the Sisters of Charity, although, of course, by then ecclesiastical properties became state properties. The nuns were replaced by state workers in 1912. In 1937, Jalisco native son, Jose Clemente Orozco was hired to paint the chapel interior.
Orozco had overcome his own traumatic childhood (he never knew his father, and lost a hand in an accident) and had served as a foot soldier in the Revolution. The religious and charitable impulse that went into building that chapel, coupled with its history of use by military forces, matched the perfect artist with the perfect medium.
As Octavio Paz wrote (Los Privilegios de la vista):
History is not, for Orozco, an epic of heroes, villains and peoples, a temporal progression endowed with purpose and sense. History is a mystery, in the religious sense of the word. It is the mystery of transfiguration of men into heroes; of willing victims whose blood sacrifice transforms them into living emblems of the human condition. Orozco neither shows, nor tells. Much less does he interpret. He only looks at the facts to seek a revelation.
Orozco, unlike Rivera and the other muralists, knew first hand the dehumanizing effects of war. A skeptic, he never mythologized the past … recognizing both the glories of the pre-hispanic world, while at the same time the militaristic, hierarchal, ecclesiastical structure that made it possible. The same oppressive over-lay of the Conquest, New Spain, the Republic… and even — under a different guise — of the Revolution in which he fought. All with notable exceptions… the humane impulse, “progress” for lack of a better word, was always there… but always subject to subversion and only knowable as myth.
Consider that invaluable friend of man, beloved by Mexicans, the horse. And how the horse came to Mexico. On the roof of the chapel, Orozco’s vision of the conquest is that friend of man — and the crown of Spain — transfigured into a weapon of destruction.
As is said of the Conquest (and of Mexican history) the horse was “neither a triumph nor a tragedy, but the birth-pangs of a people”. It’s odd, to see people laying on their backs (and doing so myself — the chapel has benches and you are encouraged to lie down and contemplate the ceiling) engrossed in their own painful birth as a people.