Monday, April 18, 2011

Great American Art: Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry

Our host took us on a tour to counter our images of Detroit. There's no denying that Detroit is in trouble, but there are also signs that Detroit has been and will once again be a city of importance. Perhaps most symbolic of the people, the industry, and the art of Detroit, is the Diego Rivera mural Detroit Industry that covers four walls in a courtyard in the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). It was the most satisfying part of the tour for me Sunday.

DIA - Diego Rivera S. wall - click to enlarge
From NPR:

In 1932 Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford and president of the car company that bears the family name, and William Valentiner, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, commissioned Rivera to paint two murals for the museum's Garden Court. The only rule was the work must relate to the history of Detroit and the development of industry.
Soon thereafter Rivera and his wife, painter Frida Kahlo, arrived in Detroit and began studying and photographing the Ford automotive plant on the Rouge River. The factory so fascinated and inspired Rivera that he soon suggested painting all four walls of the Garden Court. Ford and Valentier agreed and soon Rivera's commission was expanded.   .  .  .

The Controversy
Many people objected to Rivera's work when it was unveiled to the public. He painted workers of different races – white, black and brown, working side by side. The nudes in the mural were called pornographic, and one panel was labeled blasphemous by some members of the religious community. The section depicts a nativity scene where a baby is receiving a vaccination from a doctor and scientists from different countries took the place of the wise men. 

From the Detroit Art Institute website

Rivera was a Marxist who believed that art belonged on public walls rather than in private galleries. He found his medium in the fresco, where paint is applied to wet plaster. Its vast size allowed him to explore grand and complex themes, which would be accessible to a large audience. In Mexico, Rivera's murals tied modern Mexican culture to its indigenous roots, revealing the ancient Indian cultures as Mexico's true heritage. Similarly, Rivera's Detroit Industry murals depict industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit.

 From the Detroit News:

Many rich patrons of the DIA balked at the idea that a gigantic image of a factory, Ford Motor Co's Rouge Plant, was going to be the centerpiece of the DIA, according to press accounts of the day. Dozens of religious organizations were convinced Rivera had mocked the Holy Trinity in a panel that depicts a child vaccination. The scene shows a young child with a horse, a cow and sheep at the infant's feet. The composition of the figures forms a triangle like that of a nativity scene.
Additionally, groups representing hundreds of thousands of Metro Detroiters demanded that any public funding to the DIA be cut due to Rivera's work. A front page editorial in The Detroit News on March 18, 1933, neatly summed up their anger:
"Rivera's whole work and conception is un-American … and foolishly vulgar," the unsigned editorial states. "It bears no relation to the soul of the community, to the room, to the building or to the general purpose of Detroit's Institute of Arts. … This is not a fair picture of the man who works short hours, must be quick in action, alert of mind, who works in a factory where there is plenty of space for movement. The best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work (and) completely return the court to its original beauty."
As the threat became more real, the international press soon picked up on the drama.
The irony is that Rivera, so-called loyal socialist, was in complete awe of Henry Ford and Detroit's technology
"Henry Ford (is) a true poet and artist, one of the greatest in the world," Rivera said shortly before he arrived in Detroit, according to press accounts. Rivera, according to his autobiography "My Art, My Life," believed American engineers — creators of factories, skyscrapers and highways — were the nation's true artists and Detroit perfected the best expression of American art: the large-scale factory.
While Rivera had no intention of glossing over the misery in factories or Detroit streets, he was clearly entranced by its manufacturing muscle.

The section below shows tours for the middle class who came to watch the workers.  The iPad tours pointed out that Rivera had painted Dick Tracy and the Katzenjammer Kids. into this section.  The Tracy figure is to the left of the ladies in a triangle all on his own, the Katzenjammer kids are on the other side of the ladies.  Again, double click to enlarge all these pictures.

The Detroit Institute of Art has an online audio tour of the murals.  And, a surprise bonus, our Anchorage Museum membership cards got us in free and a discount in the bookstore.

1 comment:

  1. Having recently transplanted temporarily to Maine, and given the recent political shenanigans here with another mural, Governor Paul LePage woulda had this sucker painted over in a heartbeat.


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