A banded cluster of nearly two-dozen men, women, and children move across an open plane. The perspective of the artist shows them from behind. As we face the same direction, José Clemente Orozco invites us to walk along with the group. These people form a rear guard—a detachment of troops that protects the rear of a military force. Yet they are civilians who are not a part of an organized professional army. These are mestizos, Mexicans of mixed European and Indian ancestry. Of the countryside, these peasants have been galvanized to fight in the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century. Many Mexicans of all classes—men and women—have rallied to fight for emancipation from a corrupt and privileged government. Befitting their purpose as a rear guard, many in the group carry rifles, including two women, one of whom also carries a child on her shoulder.
Clemente Orozco crowds his people on the sheet of paper, which gives them a monumental presence. Heads are bowed in resignation to what may be a long and tiring march. He gives most of the figures almost identical poses, suggesting that they are a collective unit in their mission, where specific personal identity is of no use. Clemente Orozco gives his figure composition a sense of authority by balancing the left angle of the figures and sombreros with the right-tilting angle of the nine lifted rifles resting on shoulders.
The march is forced by military circumstance; these people are displaced peoples, perhaps far from home. The somber cast of the scene is reinforced with the rich black inks of Clemente Orozco's litho-crayon drawing. If an anonymous group in uncertain circumstances, its people are nonetheless in community and walk in solidarity. Clemente Orozco's exodus is universal in its solemn, yet dignified, statement about what people must often do to alleviate their suffering.
José Clemente Orozco, The Rear Guard, 1929, lithograph, 16 7/8 x 22 3/4 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of Rudolph and Louise Langer. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City.
José Clemente Orozco at work on the sixth fresco panel from Epic of Civilization on the American Continent. Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.