Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rivera brings art (and controversy) to Detroit

In 1932, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) became the setting of an unlikely collaboration between capitalism and socialism. That year, William Valentiner, the DIA's director, and Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford and president of Ford Motor Company, commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a Marxist, to create a series of frescoes at the DIA. Valentiner and Ford wanted the frescoes to depict industry in Detroit, and had only one requirement: that the murals portray the Ford company in a positive light.

That a socialist artist would agree to such a commission might seem curious, to say the least, but Rivera found the project intriguing. Although he believed in Marxism (which is a complicated philosophy and which I'll summarize by saying, "workers are good, business owners that exploit workers are bad"), Rivera was also fascinated by the network of factories and workers that Henry Ford had amassed in Detroit. Seeing potential in this industrialized city, Rivera accepted the commission, moved to Detroit with his wife, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and began work on the frescoes in April 1932.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

From the start, Rivera's presence in Detroit incited controversy. Critics railed against the idea that a foreign artist, and a socialist one at that, had been selected to paint iconic images of Detroit. The controversy flared anew when Rivera completed his frescoes and unveiled them to the public in March 1933. Called "Detroit Industry", the work consisted of 27 panels that depicted industrial scenes in the Motor City. The two largest panels portrayed workers at the Ford Motor Company, while smaller frescoes depicted other prominent Detroit industries, like medicine, the pharmaceutical field, and chemistry. Rivera sought to portray workers as being in harmony with their machines. Rather than have me describe how he did this (and fail miserably at my attempt), I'll just show you a closeup of one of the frescoes itself:

At first, almost everyone in Detroit found something to hate about the murals. Members of the clergy called the work "vulgar" and decried the Biblical symbolism Rivera had used. (For example, one of the murals included a pseudo-Nativity scene that, instead of the Holy Family, featured a physician administering a vaccination to an infant.) The murals also suffered assaults from critics who denounced their use of nude figures, and the fact that Rivera painted people of different races working together. (Remember, this was during the 1930s.)

However, despite (or because of) the controversy, Rivera's murals became an immediate hit among Detroit art lovers, 10,000 of whom came to visit the work in a single day. The murals also received support from the Detroit Arts Commission. Edsel Ford himself, though not explicitly praising the murals, said that he "admire[d] Rivera's spirit" and joined with Valentiner in successfully defending Rivera's work from members of the clergy who wanted it removed from the DIA.

Eighty years later, "Detroit Industry" has withstood the test of time, and remains one of the DIA's most popular attractions. The frescoes surround an area known as Rivera Court, where they remind visitors of an unlikely collaboration whose tribute to Detroit is vibrant, controversial, and full of character--much like the city itself.

More Information:
DIA web page about Rivera Court

Interactive, high-resolution view of the murals

What About Frida?
Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, was a respected artist in her own right, and made quite a splash when she arrived in Detroit in 1932. Kahlo didn't enjoy the city, to say the least. It was in Detroit that she learned of her mother's death in Mexico, and that she suffered a miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital. Kahlo hated attending the society parties she and Rivera were forced to frequent as a function of Rivera's commission, and also decried the racism that she witnessed around her.

Kahlo was nothing if not outspoken. She knew that Henry Ford, Detroit's respected scion, had a reputation as an anti-semite. One evening, while attending a dinner party at Ford's home, she asked him whether he was Jewish. According to Rivera, Ford laughed and called Kahlo "a little pistol."

Critics speculate that Kahlo's unhappiness in Detroit inspired some of her most unique works, including "Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States", which includes images of Ford's Rouge Plant (below).


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