Analysis of Cortes y Malinche
In the painting by Jose Clemente Orozco, entitled Cortes y Malinche, a white (or Mexican) man and an Indian woman sit on what appears to be a throne while an Indian man lies, presumably dead, at their feet. There are several elements at work within this painting, the most obvious of which is that the man is not only stepping on the dead Indian man, but also, has his hand across the Indian woman, as if to keep her seated. To best define and interpret the elements at work in this painting, a look will be taken as to the composition of Cortes y Malinche and an in-depth explication of the figures within the painting will be performed with guidance from the work by Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, which identifies key concepts within the painting.
To begin with, and to best understand what the painting is meant to convey, the context behind the painting must be known. Orozco is well-known for his political views and for the direct reflection that can be drawn to his paintings. Indeed, Orozco “saw concepts of race and nationality and dogmas of political and religious salvation as idols that corrupt understanding and prevent the emancipation of the human spirit” (Baas par. 5). To Orozco, the human spirit could never be free as long as religion and political agendas were more important to humanity than of finding the truths that make up the essence of the human soul. Indeed, he even saw the worship of idols, God or King, as the method for corrupting the human spirit and detaining it from finding the freedom essential to the fulfillment of every life in existence.
Even more, “only by throwing off the shackles of creeds and prejudices that have enslaved human kind to authoritarian purposes, he believed, can genuine harmony of human expression and social purpose come into being” (Baas par. 5). Orozco believed that man had no need for God or King. It is these bindings that hindered the growth of the human spirit, and not only staunched the development of mankind, but stalled the very reason humans were placed upon the earth. To Orozco, self expression was more important than the worship or any idol, celestial or man, and it is that self expression which permitted him to express these ideals within a work of art.
Additionally, “the strange permanence of Cortes y Malinche in the Mexican’s imagination and sensibilities reveals that they are something more than historical figures: they are symbols of a secret conflict” (Paz, 87). Indeed, Cortes and Malinche represent much more than simple Spaniard man and Indian woman. They are symbolic of the choice that Cortes has made to renounce his country and make a new destiny for himself.
In a very literal way, the man within the painting “breaks his ties with the past, renounces his origins, and lives in isolation and solitude…[he] condemns all his traditions at once, the whole set of gestures, attitudes and tendencies in which it is now difficult to distinguish the Spanish from the Indian” (Paz, 87). The Spaniard is steady and clear in his beliefs, yet it is clear, too, how he struggles with his chosen path as he glances off with anger in his eyes.
This painting does much to represent the classic human dilemma of which race Cortes identifies best with. The man “does not want to be either an Indian or a Spaniard. Nor does he want to be descended from them. He denies them. And he does not affirm himself as a mixture, but rather as an abstraction: he is a man” (Paz, 87). Cortes, while Spaniard, has seen what the race of Spain represents and he cannot claim himself a part of that race any longer. Yet, he is not Indian, either, but he can identify with what their people believe in and have become. At the same time, he is drawn to one race, yet he cannot claim either because he, truly, cannot recognize either as his own.
With this information, a look can now be taken at the meaning behind the title of Cortes y Malinche. Historically, Don Hernan Cortes led the conquest of Mexico for Spain. Moreover, Malinche is known historically as the woman who helped Cortes in his preamble to the Indians (Fitch). It can be said, then, that Orozco’s work is a direct reflection of the Spanish conqueror and the Indian woman and the events and affections that drove them together.
As a direct parallel, “identifying Cortes as Malinche evokes the Indian woman behind him—and, of course, her betrayal of the Indian cause” (Cypess, 101). And Cortes, for his part, “represents Spain..and all loyal Mexicans” (101), despite his antagonism towards his race. The literal interpretation here, is that Orozco, to express his opposition to the mores of God and country, depicted Cortes and Malinche with the insight of the battles and hardships past.
With that said, the manner in which Cortes and Malinche are depicted within the composition leaves much to interpretation. Moreover, much can be explicated as to not only the body language, but the facial characteristics as well. Cortes is shown seated alertly upon a throne with his arm across Malinche and his foot resting upon a, presumably dead, Indian man. In this, Cortes is literally a desolate creature with the air of a great battle fought—and more yet to come. Cortes wears a staunch frown, his hair is neat and slicked back, and his body and musculature appear strong. He appears to be protecting Malinche as his eyes drift past her to some unseen evil outside the painting. He is naked, yet he might as well be depicted with clothing as there is nothing sensual or lustful about his body language or the way in which he is painted, seated as to cover any private areas, and showing only strength and, somehow, anger, at the same time. His nakedness is merely a device to depict, once again, how Cortes has given up everything he has ever known about his race, and the uncertainty that his future might bring.
Malinche, on the other hand, looks the defeated character. She is naked, much like Cortes, yet her figure is not a flattering one. While one breast is exposed, so too is her plump belly and large thighs. She, unlike Cortes who appears alert, looks to be slumped upon the alter, a sunken form within the flesh of her own figure. She is being literally held down by Cortes, yet at the same time, is holding hands with him. Her knees are demurely closed, which can be seen as a sign of submission. Most importantly, her eyes are closed and her lips are set in a tight frown. Malinche is not the figure of uncertainty that Cortes is, yet she is not one of beauty or solace either. Truly, Malinche is the fallen creature beside Cortes, who he has chosen to protect, even though it might be too late for her and her people. Nakedness, in her case, is the stripping away of barriers that separate the Indian race from that of the Spaniards.
Moreover, the naked man lying beneath Malinche and Cortes not only looks dead, but is contorted into a defeated position which may be symbolic of the conquest of Mexico. Cortes rests with his foot upon the dead man’s hand, while Cortes’ eyes look past the man’s head as if he has just been vanquished, yet more evil might come.
Finally, a look at the scenery in which the characters are depicted brings a whole new dimension to the study of Orozco’s composition. They appear to be in some kind of cave, seated upon a rock altar, and yet, they are held in by a brick frame which spirals gently around the corners. Further, there is a fire before them, yet it is not depicted as a fire in the traditional sense. The flames are metallic, made from the rock where they are seated, yet a viewer knows instinctively that it is a fire that rests before them. But, that fire, by the manner of its depiction, looks to be one that can never be extinguished, it is eternal, with rock flames that will endure as long as Cortes and Malinche wish them to. The future is unknown, and the destiny of Cortes and Malinche has yet to be discovered.
Overall, Cortes y Malinche by Jose Clemente Orozco has direct symbolic parallels to the politics and agendas of Orozco’s time. As an undeviating reflection to the real-life Cortes and Malinche, Orozco depicts a man torn with his past, and concerned by his future, naked—literally and figuratively—to both choices. Cortes is depicted as angry, yet unswerving in his chosen path, while he protects Malinche, and all he has come to believe in, at the same time. From this explication, with the influences of Octavio Paz and a few others, a viewer can look upon Cortes y Malinche with the understanding of who the characters were, the struggles that brought them to their illustrated moment, and the symbolism and parallels behind the art that Orozco wished to express.
Baas, Jacquelynn. “Jose Clemente Orozco: Man of Fire.” PBS Online: American Masters.
(2009): 9 pars. June 12, 2009 <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/jose-
Cypess, Sandra Messinger. La Malinche in Mexican Literature from History to Myth. Texas:
University of Texas Press, 1991.
Fitch, Nancy, Dr. “The Conquest of Mexico: An Annotated Bibliography.” (undated): 12 pars.
June 12, 2009 < http://faculty.fullerton.edu/nfitch/nehaha/conquestbib.htm>
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude. Trns. Lysander Kemp. New York: Grove Press,
Reed, Alma. Orozco. New York: Oxford UP, 1956.