José Clemente Orozco, Spanish Warriors & Indians, 1947
This painting from the National Museum of Fine Arts Collection in Mexico City, has been haunting me ever since I first saw it last month. In it, the vast cultural divide between the Spaniards leading the march and the indigenous men behind them is so starkly rendered that it feels invented, or at least exaggerated (although I doubt that it is). The most disarming detail is the half-prone man in the middle of the composition. Has he fallen? Is he injured? There is something deeply humiliating about his position, as if he was just struck by one of the soldiers -- a possibility that seems to be mirrored by the expressions of anger on the other native men -- and is struggling to get back on his feet.
I'm also trying to put this in context with the year it was painted, which would have even defined by intensifying. revelations after World War II of the extent of the atrocities committed in Hitler's concentration camps. The conquistadores sought to conquer and not to destroy, but they weren't above making public examples of their victims' killings to keep the rest of the populace in line. Which brings up the most obvious question behind the painting: where exactly are they going?