[The is the concluding half of my article on Diego Rivera, the renowned Mexican muralist, and his wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, inspired by the opening last month of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Part one covered the lives and careers of the two famous artists; in part two, I will describe the murals Rivera was commissioned to create on the walls of DIA in 1932 and ’33. (I recommend going back first and reading part one if you haven’t already as it sets the scene for the presentation of the murals.)]
Not strictly part of the DIA exhibit, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit—because they are an integral part of the building itself and, thus, a site-specific aspect of the institute—but just down the hall from it are the 27 Detroit Industry murals in the building’s interior Garden Court, a fulfillment of the DIA architect’s original plan for the space, which was renamed the Rivera Court. Rivera was commissioned by William R. Valentiner, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, to depict the manufacturing might of a city particularly devastated by the Great Depression. The original commission was for two murals, but the Mexican muralist was so drawn to the machinery of industrial America which he featured prominently in many of his murals as a promise of a wondrous future, that he pressed his sponsors to let him paint all four walls of the Garden Court. (At the same time, Kahlo hated Detroit, its food, and its weather. As much as she had disliked New York, she traveled back there as often as she could during her yearlong sojourn just to escape Detroit!) Valentiner and Ford agreed and soon Rivera was at work on an expanded plan stressing the relationship between man and machine and the continuous development of life. Together and individually, through symbols, figures both Detroiters and visitors would readily recognize, and activities almost anyone who lived in or near the Motor City would immediately understand, the murals tell a narrative—Rivera’s art was one of story-telling (while Kahlo’s was one of emotional impact)—of Detroit’s (and, by extension, the United States’) manufacturing might and prowess. The final work covers more than 43,000 square feet.
The frescoes illustrate not just the automobile industry, but also the medical and chemical industries in the city, as well as the pharmaceutical manufacturing, represented by Parke-Davis and Company (now called Pfizer, Inc.). Nevertheless, a major sponsor of the project was Ford Motor Company president Edsel B. Ford, the 38-year-old son of founder Henry Ford. (Ford paid Rivera’s entire fee of $21,000, the equivalent in 2015 of $338,000.) Rivera’s murals celebrated America’s industrial strength and the riches of its land, but did not hesitate to criticize what he saw as social and political injustices (which is what got him in such trouble in New York with the Rockefellers). Industrial technology is portrayed as both constructive and destructive, and the relationships between North and South America, management and labor, and the cosmic and technological are also explored for both good and ill.
Rivera researched, designed, and painted the murals from April 1932 though March 1933, the depth of the Depression, starting with sketches of the panels and then painting the frescoes which are considered the most outstanding examples of Mexican mural art in the U.S. and which the artist believed were the pinnacle of his life’s work. From April to July, Rivera prepared charcoal drawings, called “cartoons,” based on sketches, photographs, and even film footage he and Kahlo shot at Ford’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn and the Parke-Davis factory in Detroit, then the largest in the world. Rivera and Kahlo spent months sketching and photographing in one factory after another all across the Detroit area, visiting scores of locations for his research. Rivera completed dozens of drawings as preliminary studies so he could narrow down the pictures he wanted to show.
Rivera’s Detroit Industry depicts manufacturing and technology as the city’s native culture and, good Marxist that he was, glorifies its labor force. Believing that art should not be hidden away in private homes and elite galleries but installed in public buildings open to everyone, Rivera found his perfect medium in the mural. (Rivera even devised “portable murals”—freestanding murals on cement with steel backing—to make the frescoes accessible to all.) After he executed commissions at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and the Pacific Stock Exchange in 1931, the muralist’s monumental Detroit Industry project influenced Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to use murals to promote his New Deal, which gave birth to the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, a program of hiring out-of-work artists to create works in public buildings across the U.S.
The murals, which Rivera began painting in July 1932, completing the whole cycle in a remarkable eight months, were painted in the Italian Renaissance fresco technique, applying water-based tempera to damp plaster. This process takes dozens of steps for each section, working only on a portion of a panel that can be completed in a single day, to maintain the stability of the mural. The artist worked daily in 18-hour shifts, employing assistants (for whom Rivera had to pay out of his fee; the museum bought the supplies). The assistants prepared the walls for the frescoes, but Rivera did all the painting himself. The work was so arduous that Rivera, who usually weighed about 300 pounds (on a 6′1″ frame), lost 100 pounds during the eight months of painting. Part of the laborious process is the transfer of the cartoons to the walls by tracing them into the wet plaster before the pigment is applied. (Eight of Rivera’s original cartoons are on display in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, lost in DIA storage since the 1980s and not seen by the public in 30 years.)
A large, arched opening leads from the Great Hall into the Rivera Court (formerly known as the Garden Court). On the opposite (north) end, a loggia leads to the auditorium. The court’s walls are segmented by renaissance molding and columns within which Rivera painted the twenty-seven panels that make up the Detroit Industry mural series. The court’s expansive skylight, marble floors, and the murals themselves all combine to create an elaborate and opulent setting. Many, both viewers and critics, local and visitor, have characterized Detroit Industry, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2014, as the American Sistine Chapel. In any case, there is nothing like the Detroit Industry murals anywhere else in the U.S.; they are unique. (For images of the murals go to the Detroit Institute of Art website: www.dia.org/art/rivera-court.aspx.)
Thematically, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle begins on the east wall, the direction of the rising sun which symbolizes beginning and renewal, where the origins of human life, raw materials, and technology are represented. In the center panel, an infant is cradled in the womb-like bulb of a plant whose vein-like roots extend into the soil, where, in the lower corners, two steel plowshares appear. (Some reports assert that Rivera had originally planned to use a plant bulb in this image but changed his design after his wife lost a baby.) The fetus represents the beginnings of life, but also indicates humanity’s dependence on the bounty of the earth.
Plowshares are used to plow under weeds and debris from the previous crop to replenish the soil with nutrients. They symbolize the first form of technology—agriculture—and relate in substance and form to the automotive technology represented on the north and south walls. Bracketing the main panel are two seated female nudes representing fertility and the European and indigenous populations of North (the figure with blond hair) and South America (black hair). The nudes hold wheat and apples—produce grown in Michigan and the U.S. Below these figures are two still-life panels representing the fruits and vegetables indigenous to Michigan.
The east wall theme of the development of technology continues on the west wall, the direction of sunsets and endings, where the technologies of air (the aviation industry), water (shipping and speedboats), and energy (the interior of Power House #1) are represented. The symbolic significance of the west wall is made explicit in the depiction of dualities in technology, nature, and humanity and in the relationship between labor and management. Rivera specifically shows the constructive and destructive uses of aviation; the existence in nature of species who eat down the food chain as well as those who prey on their own kind, the coexistence of life and death; the interdependence of North and South America; and the interdependence of management and labor. This wall combines the religious symbolism of Christian theology (the Last Judgment) with the ancient Indian belief in the coexistence and interdependence of life and death. The judgment here is related to humanity’s uses of technology.
Upper Tier: Aviation
The airplanes on the left of the fresco are passenger planes, while airplanes on the right are fighter planes adapted from the original designs for passenger planes. (Ford made both war planes and civilian aircraft; the passenger plane is a Ford Tri-Motor, manufactured between 1925 and 1933.) Figures in gas masks stand next to the fighter planes, and welders stand next to the passenger planes. Rivera adjusted the perspective of the airplanes and a hangar in the fresco to the vantage point of the viewer standing on the floor of the court. Not only are the architectural divisions of the upper tier disregarded to extend the airplanes into the side panels, but the perspective creates the illusion of a window opening out on the hangar and airfield. Below the passenger planes is a peaceful dove feeding on a lower species. Below the war planes is a rapacious hawk feeding on its own species.
Middle Tier: Interdependence of North and South
While the Aviation panels give the illusion of windows looking out of the court onto the scene, Rivera created the opposite illusion, that of a sculpted niche, below the central window. Here he painted a compass rose in monochrome gray to suggest that it is carved in stone (directly above the middle tier). The compass points to the northeast and southwest simultaneously. Most likely the compass introduces the theme of the interdependence of North and South America. On the right side of the panel is a rubber tree plantation where four men are shown collecting sap to make latex. In 1927, Ford had established Fordlandia, a rubber plantation in Brazil, to produce latex for automobile tire production at the Rouge. Rivera hoped for stronger relations between South and North America through investments and trade, and he spoke of this panel as a representation of the interconnectedness of the industrial north and agrarian south.
Two Great Lakes freighters (based on Ford Motor Company ships that carried raw materials from the northern Great Lakes to the Rouge) pass, while speed boats and fish glide in front of them. With the industrial port on the left and the rubber tree plantation on the right, the water represents the symbolic confluence of the Detroit and Amazon rivers and represents the interdependence of the Americas. The industrial port is based on the actual boat slip at the Rouge. A pipe-fitter and man working a chain pulley appear in front of a bridge crane on railroad tracks used to unload freighters. The skyline of the city of Detroit is represented in the left background.
The coexistence of life and death is graphically presented above the center of the shipping panel, where a half-face and half-skull are painted on either side of a five-pointed star. This dualism is a spiritual concept that goes back to the most ancient beliefs in Mexico. The half-face is a portrait of George Washington, whom Rivera referred to as America’s first revolutionary.
Lower Tier: Steam and Electricity
This is the section that plays out Rivera’s theme of “man and machine.” Vertical panels on each side of the west entrance to the court introduce the theme of the automobile industry through representation of Power House #1. The Power House was the principal power generation and distribution facility at the Rouge. The manager/engineer in the electricity panel is a composite portrait of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, who were close friends throughout their adult lives. The worker/mechanic is associated with the raw energy of steam. Rivera, in a small joke, put a red star on the worker’s glove, which would indicate that he’s a communist except for the fact that one of Detroit’s businesses was a leather-goods company called the Red Star Glove Company. The manager engineer is associated with the transformed power of electricity. Here, Rivera graphically demonstrates the dichotomy of workers and capitalists in the steam and electricity panels of the west wall. He associates each with different kinds of power but also shows how these forms of power are inextricably linked. (Note that the turbine in this panel resembles an ear, maybe emphasizing the managers’ oversight of the workers.)
NORTH AND SOUTH WALLS
The north and south walls are devoted to representations of the four races (two on each wall, at the top tier), the automobile industry (in the large mid-sections), and the other Detroit industries—medicine, drugs, gas bomb manufacture, and commercial chemicals (in the side panels). They continue the themes established on the east and west walls which combine ancient and Christian symbols. The organization of each wall follows a pattern: monumental figures on top, the worker’s everyday world of the factories in the center, and small monochrome, so-called predella panels showing a day in the life of a worker on the lower edge. (An actual predella is a painting or sculpture along the frame at the bottom of an altarpiece.)
North and South Walls: The Four Races Panels
On the upper level of the north and south walls, Rivera painted giant red (representing Native North and South Americans), black (Africans), yellow (Asians), and white (Europeans) female figures symbolic of the diverse workforce. Each figure holds in her hand one of the raw materials necessary for making steel and cars—Rivera attributed the tensile strength of the raw materials with his conception of the character of each race: the red race he associated with iron ore (the first ingredient for making steel for the first race in the Americas), the black race with diamonds and coal (which provides the hardness of steel as the black laborer affords to the manufacturing process), the yellow race with quartz sand (silica, used in making glass), and the white race with the building material of limestone.
North and South Walls: Geological Strata Panels
Below the four races panels, Rivera painted geological cross-sections showing iron ore under the red race, coal and diamonds under the black race, limestone under the white race, and quartz crystals and fossils under the yellow race.
North and South Wall Corner Panels: Vaccination, Manufacture of Poisonous Gas Bombs, Pharmaceutics, and Commercial Chemical Operations
On both sides of the four races panels on the north and south walls, Rivera painted corner panels that serve as visual parentheses to the gigantic figures. They continue the themes of the unity of organic and inorganic life and the constructive and destructive uses of technology.
North Wall: Vaccination Panel
The north wall right corner panel depicts a child being vaccinated by a doctor who is attended by a nurse. The composition of this panel is directly taken from the Italian Renaissance form of the nativity, where the biblical figures of Mary (the nurse, a portrait of actress Jean Harlow) and Joseph (the doctor, a likeness of William Valentiner), and Jesus (the baby being inoculated; his face is modeled on the infant son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, kidnapped and murdered in March 1932) are depicted in the foreground and the three wise men in the background. The three wise men—which Rivera identified as a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew, the ecumenical wise men of the modern world—are scientists who dissect dogs for the benefit of human health. In the foreground are a horse (not a donkey as is common in Christian iconography), a sheep, and a cow, the sources of the vaccines. Vaccines are made in the background by three scientists in a dissection laboratory. This is the panel that depicts the “good” science that benefits life.
North Wall: Healthy Human Embryo Panel
Below the vaccination panel, a healthy human embryo is shown gaining sustenance from the geological strata and at the same time being threatened by microscopic images of diseases. The embryo sac is surrounded by an egg. Sperm, multiplying chromosomes, red and white blood cells, and six forms of bacteria are associated with the work of the three scientists in the vaccination panel.
North Wall: Manufacture of Poisonous Gas Bombs
On the left corner is a frightening depiction of the production of gas bombs by insect-like (or perhaps alien?) figures in gas masks. Gas canisters and a completed bomb hangs ominously over their heads. This panel illustrates the “bad” science that harms life.
North Wall: Cells Suffocated by Poisonous Gas
The small panel below the production of gas bombs shows a microscopic view of cells being attacked and destroyed by poisonous gases.
South Wall: Pharmaceutics Panel
Pharmaceutics is based on drawings of the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical firm in Detroit. The figure in the foreground represents the chemist/manager, who is surrounded by devices such as a pill sorter, an adding machine on top of a Gothic-style radio, a microphone, and a telephone. Women sorting pills surround the manager. The background shows drying ovens and chemical operations.
South Wall: Surgery Panel
The small panel below the Pharmaceutics panel depicts brain surgery in the center, surrounded by human organs, and the same four geological elements found in the middle tiers—iron, coal, limestone, and sand. Above the gloved hands is a view of an open skull. The right hand of the surgeon has just extracted a brain tumor. Rivera divided the organs between those of reproduction on the right and digestion on the left. On the upper right side of Surgery, male and female sexual glands are represented. Digestive organs are presented on the left. In the lower foreground Rivera painted three covered dissecting trays.
South Wall: Commercial Chemical Operations Panel
The right corner panel may depict a magnesium cell operation or perhaps an ammonia operation. The panel is stylistically and compositionally the most sophisticated of the upper panels. It is painted in a Futurist style to demonstrate the movement of the workers, showing them in two different positions. Use of this style is rare in Rivera’s work.
The figure in the lower left holds a torch to heat substances in the drums. In the left background a man in a lab coat works with standard chemical apparatus at a table. Behind him a workman studies gauges probably related to the ovens. In the upper right a man may be working on a brine well drilling process.
South Wall: Sulfur and Potash Panel
Below the Chemical panel, the natural state of sulfur and potash is shown. The crystals on the left are halite, or table salt; the crystals on the right are sulfur. In the center, spherical objects in the four groups are suspended in gaseous fumes emanating from the salt and sulfur. This panel continues the theme of the development of life from inanimate material.
North Wall: Production and Manufacture of Engine and Transmission
On the largest panel of the north wall Rivera combined the interiors of five buildings at the Rouge: the blast furnace, open hearth furnace, production foundry, motor assembly plant, and steel rolling mills. (Near the blast furnace is a figure in a bowler hat among the workers. This is a self-portrait of Rivera intended to show his solidarity with the workers in whose midst he stands.) The panel represents all the important operations in the production and manufacture of an automobile, specifically the engine and transmission housing of the 1932 Ford V-8, all tied together with the ribbon of the conveyor belt (the Rouge had 120 miles of it) and assembly lines (at its peak, the pant employed 100,000 workers), like some immense, symbolic circulatory system. One of the first stages in the production of steel is carried out in the blast furnaces, glowing the red and orange of extreme heat, where iron ore, coke (made from coal), and limestone are reduced by heat to make iron. Here, the blast furnace, the dominant background image, is the terminus of a processional way created by two rows of multiple spindles accompanied by conveyor lines. The spindles, which focus the viewer’s attention to the furnace, resemble Toltec guardians, connecting the modern technology to an earlier, pre-industrial time. The steel milling processes then continue in the predella panels below.
Rivera included a variety of faces and physiques in his figures, reflecting the multiracial work force at Ford as well as his own assistants on the mural project. Though in the 1930s, the assembly-line workers at the Ford plant (as elsewhere in industry) were all white—the non-white workers being relegated to the menial and unpleasant jobs—Rivera painted his ideal workers as representing racially mixed laborers working harmoniously together. His emphasis on the multiracial workforce in the automobile panels expressed a Marxist hope for the future power of the working class.
South Wall: Production of Automobile Exterior and Final Assembly
Rivera combined another five buildings at the Rouge in the major panel of the south wall: the Pressed Steel Building (now Dearborn Stamping Plant); B Building (now Dearborn Assembly Plant); the Spring and Upset Building: By-products Building; and the Glass Plant. This automotive panel is devoted to the production of the exterior of the 1932 Ford V-8 and its final assembly. Unlike the north wall, this panel is not organized in production sequence, although all the major operations are included. The creation of the automobile body parts begins at the right, where the monumental stamping press produces fenders out of large sheets of steel. A cluster of stamping presses appears in the upper left section.
The huge stamping press in this panel is of special note. In all of Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, he prided himself in the accuracy of the machines he represented, but this machine was an older version of the one in use at the plant, a sleeker and more modern-looking press. Rivera saw in the older version a resemblance to Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of creation. Both a giver and destroyer of life, Coatlicue was fed human hearts as a sacrifice to keep her maintaining the order of the universe. Rivera saw the assembly-line laborers as sacrificial victims of overwork, repetitive (machine-like) motion, and noxious fumes, to the worship of the mechanical gods of industry and capitalism. The stamping press-Coatlicue presided over this sacrifice.
After the auto body parts are stamped into forms, they are spot welded. Spot welding is carried out to the lower left of the stamping press. The surface is then smoothed out in the buffing process, which is in the lower left foreground. Workmen are being observed by a foreman in hat and glasses. This figure represents the constant hostile supervision at Ford by production managers who were more interested in quotas than in the conditions of the workers or their environment.
At the top of the panel in the center is the welding buck where the separate parts are welded into the body of the car. To the right of the buck, women sew upholstery and to the left, painters spray the bodies before they are conveyed into the ovens. Below the welding buck is the final assembly of the car. Men use pulleys to secure the chassis to the line. Along the line, the motors are lowered into the chassis, wheels attached, and the body secured. At the very end of the assembly line Rivera painted a tiny red car speeding off into time and space. The focus of the panel is on the work; the end result, the distant and nearly unnoticeable red Ford, is not the heart of the effort. The tiny, four-inch-long car (in a panel that measures nearly 800 square feet), driving off the assembly line, all but disappears into the “process.”
There are two groups of people who are not workers in this panel. The first is a tour group made up of dour-faced bourgeoisie who look blankly or disapprovingly at the workers. (Tours of the plant, which were then quite common, to see the workers at their hard labor, was reminiscent of the 18th-century practice of encouraging ordinary people to visit asylums to gawk at the crazy folk.) Some figures are reminiscent of comic strip characters such as Dick Tracy and the Katzenjammer Kids. The second group is two observers standing at the lower right section. Rivera painted these two figures in the traditional position of Italian Renaissance donors. On the left is a portrait of Edsel B. Ford and on the right a portrait of William Valentiner. Valentiner holds the contract for the mural project.
Apart from their similarity to Italian medieval and Renaissance altar paintings, Rivera’s predella panels are also reminiscent, in their monochromaticism, of traditional grisaille, paintings executed entirely or mostly in shades of grey, where the intent was to create the illusion of a sculptural frieze. He used the predella both to show a day in the life of a worker—punching in, performing their regular routines, returning home after the workday—and to illustrate some of the major production processes not easily included in the larger panels. The predella panels appear as if fixed to steel gates, which separate the viewer from the workers in the automotive panel. The center of each gate is open with handles and chains on each sliding door, inviting the viewer into the factory space.
When the murals were revealed to the public, several groups and individuals raised objections. Some even lamented the loss of the Garden Court, with its palm trees, central fountain, and empty walls. Bluenoses labeled the nudes symbolizing fertility pornographic. The vaccination panel was called sacrilegious by clergy because it evoked the nativity scene for secular purposes. The factory scenes showed the different races working together harmoniously, an affront to segregationists who were the prevailing population in Jim Crow America.
A front-page Detroit News editorial, calling the murals “un-American,” “a slander,” “vulgar,” and “coarse,” demanded they be whitewashed. It didn’t help that many questioned why a Mexican communist had been hired to paint the works over an American artist during a time of such widespread joblessness. (This casual xenophobia wasn’t limited to the artist: the Detroit Free Press also noted that DIA director Valentiner was German-born.) Some critics asserted that Rivera had presented the city with a graphic Communist Manifesto.
The notorious Father Charles Coughlin, a vocal anti-Semite and supporter of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, denounced Rivera and the murals on his popular radio program and Rev. H. Ralph Higgins of Grand Rapids’ St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral held meetings of prominent Detroiters who opposed the paintings. Both called for the murals’ destruction.
Edsel Ford, however, calmed the outcry with his statement: “I admire Rivera’s spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.” (Some have long suspected that Ford engineered the protests and denunciations to build up curiosity and interest in the murals. If he did, his tactic worked!)
Supporters of the murals also spoke out, especially the unions, which saw in Rivera’s portrayals of the workers a tribute to their dignity and hard work. Rivera recorded later that he viewed this as proof that they felt the murals “had been created exclusively for the pleasure of the workers of this city.” Prominent intellectuals and fellow artists, the same voices that had protested the destruction of Man at the Crossroads in New York, spoke in favor of the work as well. 100,000 visitors came to see the murals in the month after they were opened to the public, sometimes as many as 10,000 in a single day, and 1934 saw DIA’s patronage rise to its highest level in its seven-year history.
In the 1950’s, at the height of the McCarthyist anti-communist era, the controversy of Rivera’s Marxism reemerged. The DIA put up a large sign that averred that “Rivera's politics and his publicity seeking are detestable,” but went on to insist that the artist painted Detroit’s industry and technology as “wonderful and very exciting” and “as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.” The DIA administration ended with the statement: “If we are proud of this city's achievements, we should be proud of these paintings.”
Today, the artistic value of Rivera’s Detroit Industry is no longer even in question. They are universally recognized as masterpieces, even if you don’t agree with or even particularly like the social commentary the artist incorporated in his art. If the murals provoke disagreement or debate on that level . . . well, then, they have accomplished what Rivera intended.
[A few weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit, there was a hunger march on Ford’s River Rouge Plant in protest of layoffs. The police, the army, and Pinkerton agents opened fire on the marchers, killing five people and wounding 20. Though many Detroiters wondered why Henry Ford, Edsel’s father and the founder of the automobile firm, acquiesced in the mural project, there was a very strong feeling, not supported by Ford Company records, that Henry Ford did not block the murals because he felt it would be good publicity for the company to do something so grand. This labor unrest (which was even echoed in Rivera’s professional relationship with his assistants), like the Depression itself, was not portrayed in the murals in any way, which presented the labor as harmonious and nearly utopian.
[The Detroit Institute of Arts is located at 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202; (313) 833-7900 (TDD: (313) 833-1454). It’s open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mondays. (There are special extended hours for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit.) Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for students (with student photo ID), and $4 for children 6-17; children under 6, residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties, and DIA members (with driver’s license) are admitted free. (Active military personnel and their families are admitted free from May 30 to September 5.) For travel directions and further information, visit the DIA website, http://www.dia.org.]