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Detroit, 1932: when Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo came to town

A detail from the north wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry. Diego Rivera, 1932. Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit of 1932 had many parallels to the Detroit of today.

The city was teetering toward bankruptcy. People were out of work. The city was so pressed for funds that it seriously considered closing its art museum and selling off its collection – just as it did when Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

Labor and industry clashed in 1930s Detroit. Bits of News

And social unrest was in the air. On March 7 1932, the Ford Hunger March took place, during which laid-off factory workers clashed with anti-union enforcers hired by Henry Ford. Four marchers were killed, while 60,000 people took part in the funeral procession.

It was in this atmosphere of financial depression and social unrest that the burly Mexican muralist Diego Rivera – an avowed communist, fresh off a visit to the Soviet Union – came to Detroit to execute a massive mural for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). With him, he brought his petite new bride, Frida Kahlo.

Eighty-two years later, the Detroit Institute of Arts is celebrating the works of Rivera and Kahlo with an exhibition that will run until July 12.

What the two artists produced during their year in Detroit marked the high point of each artist’s respective career.

For Rivera it was a mural – Detroit Industry – which he regarded as his masterpiece: the single most complete, powerful expression of his social and artistic ideals.

For Kahlo it was a series of self-portraits and harrowing narrative paintings that deal with themes like childbirth, abortion and suicide.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Wikimedia Commons

Yet how did a city that epitomized the nation’s industrial prowess come to commission a mural by an avowed communist? And why was he bankrolled by the heir to an auto empire that had revolutionized mass production and consumption? (During the height of the Red Scare, the Detroit Industry murals would be accompanied by a banner that began, “Rivera’s politics and his publicity seeking are detestable…”)

It’s a peculiar story, one that features larger-than-life personalities and awe-inspiring works of art. Like the best characters, all involved were conflicted, flawed and not quite what they seemed.

The commission

In 1932, Rivera and Kahlo arrived at the beckoning of the DIA’s museum director, Wilhelm Valentiner.

Valentiner was educated and trained in Germany. Over the course of his career, he created several great American art museums, spent most of his life in elite social circles and gave little indication of his political views, although he was briefly involved in political reform movements as a young man.

Ostensibly married, he seems to have been homosexual. Perhaps because of this, he kept his private life and inner feelings closely guarded.

And while he was the key figure in conceiving the commission, his motives for doing so aren’t clear.

Diego Rivera’s tight-lipped Wilhelm Valentiner (in the blue suit) appears on the mural’s south wall. Detroit Industry, south wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932. Detroit Institute of Arts

Was it simply because Rivera was a star of the art world, or did Valentiner have some deeper political or social agenda?

Rivera’s portrait of Valentiner – another highlight of the exhibition – presents a figure who seems at once tight-lipped and tremulously sensitive.

Valentiner managed to execute the project through the financial support of Henry Ford’s only son, Edsel Bryant Ford, whose relationship with his father was conflicted, to say the least.

While nominally the head of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel had little actual control: his father, Henry, continued to manage the family business with an iron fist. Henry regarded Edsel as unmanly, a bit of a sissy who was much too interested in art.

Somehow, father and son skirted open conflict; but they worked in separate spheres, often in direct opposition to each other.

Edsel Ford (left) had a tenuous relationship with his father, Henry (right). Wikimedia Commons

Henry Ford, for example, refused to hire Jews; his son quietly donated money to Jewish causes. While Henry ran the day-to-day operations of the business, Edsel retreated to the design studio, where his extraordinary genius for graceful, functional design helped rescue the Ford Motor Company from near bankruptcy.

Though the family business survived the stock market crash, the Great Depression had devastated the city’s working class. Wages were slashed, thousands lost their jobs and unemployment insurance didn’t exist.

Perhaps harboring complex feelings of privilege and guilt, Edsel seems to have sensed that a mural by Rivera could act as a healing force, reducing tensions between the owner and his workers.

And so he wrote a $20,000 check to cover Rivera’s fee – the equivalent of $320,000 today.

Detroit Industry

Upon arriving in Detroit, Diego Rivera – the avowed communist – was mesmerized by the efficiency of the city’s factories, which fulfilled his romantic notions of a productive, modern industrial state.

Rivera was spellbound by The Ford Motor Company, the capitalist engine that powered Detroit. Don Harrison/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Somewhat surprisingly, he was also completely captivated by young Edsel Ford, a figure of considerable elegance and charm, who – save for his avowed reverence for capitalism – personified Rivera’s ideals of the enlightened modern leader.

With precise attention to detail, Rivera studied every process of the Ford factory complex at River Rouge, before compressing them into a single composition, spread over two large panels. He then inserted scenes of science and industry, accompanied by vast, nude, female allegorical figures, which symbolize the four directions and the different races of mankind.

The result was Detroit Industry: 27 panels that work in unison, highlighted by the two large panels of the River Rouge factories. Together, they line the DIA’s Rivera Court.

The large panel on the north wall depicts engine and transmission production. Detroit Industry, north wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

If we go through the laborious process of decoding the different scenes, we find that Rivera often organized them using contrasts, like the manufacturing of poison gas juxtaposed with the healing vaccines of modern medicine and science.

From the north wall of Detroit Industry: the manufacturing of poisonous gas. Detroit Industry, north wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

Yet despite the often heavy-handed use of didactic messages, the overall emotional effect is oddly ambiguous. Is the mural a celebration of the modern age? Or is it a nightmarish portrayal of soul-crushing industry? (Ironically, while Rivera claimed to be a communist, he grossly underpaid his workers for their help executing the mural.)

A couple that quarreled and inspired

Rivera and Kahlo were far from a model couple. They argued constantly. They divorced and remarried. He had an affair with a number of other women, including Kahlo’s sister. She had multiple affairs as well, with both men and women.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Yet despite the turmoil, they clearly possessed a profound artistic bond. While he could often be brutish and chauvinistic, it was Rivera who encouraged his wife to unleash, on canvas, her pain and anger towards men, to enter uncharted realms of subject matter and feeling.

Compared to Rivera’s huge murals, Kahlo’s paintings are initially a bit of a let-down: they’re surprisingly small in scale and not particularly impressive at the technical level.

Nonetheless, they’re surely landmarks because they dealt with subjects that had never been treated in the entire history of art: birth and abortion. The more one studies and deciphers the stories these images tell, the more arresting, haunting and unforgettable they become.

Sadly, the organizers couldn’t obtain the most impressive of Kahlo’s paintings: My Birth, 1932, which belongs to the pop star Madonna.

Frida Kahlo’s The Suicide of Dorothy Hale. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But the show does include Henry Ford Hospital, which depicts Kahlo’s abortion, along with A Few Small Nips – a rendering of a man with a dripping knife standing beside the bloody corpse of the woman he’s just murdered. There’s also the enigmatic Suicide of Dorothy Hale, a painting of a New York socialite jumping out of a tall building.

As with Rivera’s work, there’s an odd internal ambivalence to Kahlo’s work. Many of her paintings portray women as victims, either to the brutality of men or to the cruelty of natural processes, such as birth. Yet as a whole, they seem to simultaneously celebrate the strength of women.

In Kahlo’s world, the suffering and accomplishments of women are the dominant threads of human history, a story in which men play a secondary role.

Such an intensely feminist viewpoint had never before been expressed in art. And while Kahlo herself declared that she was a greater artist than Rivera, she was largely overlooked at the time. Now, however, Kahlo’s reputation and popular appeal – particularly among women – has come to overshadow that of Rivera.

Yet both should be lauded for finding inspiration in the struggles of daily life, for pinpointing issues that still concern and confound us today.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit will be exhibited until July 12 2015.

The everyday worker inspired Diego Rivera. Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

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