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Art that rocked Detroit: 80th anniversary of the DIA's Diego Rivera murals

By Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

Eighty years ago, the Detroit Institute of Arts debuted “Detroit Industry,” the monumental murals by Diego Rivera that he intended to be a tribute to Michigan’s innovative technology.

Many initially despised it. Politicians such as Detroit City Councilmember William Bradley, academicians including Marygrove College President George Derry, and scores of religious and social organizations representing tens of thousands demanded the art be destroyed.

Their complaints: It promoted class warfare. It mocked baby Jesus. It embraced racial equality. The Detroit News ran a scorching front-page editorial that concluded “the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work completely.”

It’s a good thing Rivera’s critics didn’t see the paintings created by the artist’s young wife, Frida Kahlo, during their 11-month stay in Detroit. Here she began to work on small paintings that captured painful moments in her life in a dream-like setting. Even by today’s standards, her works are considered graphic and groundbreaking.

Rivera’s murals and Kahlo’s Detroit paintings are now regarded as masterpieces. Kahlo, who died in 1954, is a cultural icon and one of the most popular artists in the world. Beside the biographical film a decade ago starring Salma Hayek as “Frida,” she is the subject of hundreds of books. In 2015, the DIA will host its own Frida and Diego exhibit.

To mark the 80th anniversary of “Detroit Industry,” The News looked into its archives to show some of the local places that shaped the two artists’ experience.

Michigan Central Station. Rivera and Kahlo arrive on the New York train April 21, 1932. A mob of reporters and supporters are on hand to greet the famous Rivera, 45. He just completed a one-man retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that broke attendance records. Ford Motor Co. President Edsel Ford commissioned Rivera to create a series of murals at the DIA.

Kahlo, 25, is unknown at the time. The press noticed her stylish wardrobe and swarmed her. In the crowd was Lady Sophia Frederica Christina Hastings, wife of British aristocrat Lord Francis Hastings. The two followed Rivera from city to city, just to be around great art. Kahlo likely had an affair with Lady Hastings in San Francisco in 1930. The press overwhelmed Kahlo and she fled to a waiting car. Detroit News reporter Florence Davies shouted one last question. “Are you a painter, too?” Kahlo replied: “Yes, the greatest in the world.”

The Wardell, 15 E. Kirby St., Detroit. Now called the Park Shelton, the couple lived in the apartment complex across the street from the DIA. The couple soon learned the Wardell banned Jews. Both declared they had Jewish heritage. An exception was made. Kahlo set up a space in their two-bedroom apartment to paint.

Edison Institute, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn. Rivera, an avowed Marxist, and Henry Ford, second-richest man in America, start to bond over their shared love of manufacturing. Rivera spent 13 hours on the grounds now called Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford. Ford apparently secretly watched Rivera as the artist marveled at the large machinery. He was impressed Rivera was so impressed.

Ford Motor Co.’s River Rouge Complex, 3001 Miller Road, Dearborn. Rivera was entranced by the largest, most technically advanced factory in the world. He called it the “Great Saga of Machine and Steel.”

Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, 1100 Lake Shore Road, Grosse Pointe Woods. In this lakeside mansion, Kahlo rebelled. At a dinner party, she allegedly swore at guests in Spanish, apparently angered by their nonchalance toward the plight of the poor.

Henry Ford Estate, 4901 Evergreen Road, Dearborn. Kahlo and Henry Ford square danced at a dinner party in Ford’s private residence. However, she challenged him. She knew of his anti-Semitism, such as his past ownership of the Dearborn Independent newspaper that ran articles touting “The International Jew” conspiracy. Kahlo waited for a quiet moment and asked: “Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?” He allegedly burst out in laughter and called her a “little pistol.”

Henry Ford Hospital, 2799 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Kahlo’s first masterpiece is named after this hospital, where she had a miscarriage. In the many exhibits of her art around the world, this painting is often displayed prominently.

The Scarab Club, 217 Farnsworth St., Detroit. The artist social club behind the DIA was a favorite haunt. Besides the cozy ambience, the Scarab also had another great appeal: Booze flowed at a time when Prohibition was the law of the land. Related story:  The Scarab Club: Detroit’s artist hangout since 1907.

Belle Isle Casino, Belle Isle, Detroit. Rivera’s Marxist talk angered an upscale crowd of 200 during a YWCA banquet. Rivera’s English-language translator apparently walked off the stage after bristling at Rivera’s statement, “All progress is the result of class struggle.”

Houghton Elementary, 16745 Lamphere St. Detroit. This Detroit public school was where the Latino community hosted a dinner for the artists. Longtime Detroit Latino families tell stories of personal interaction with the two. The pair attended a meeting about the plight of Mexican immigrants at 4326 Toledo in southwest Detroit. The building no longer exists.

Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, 47 Watson, Detroit. Kahlo likely took a class to learn lithography, a form of print making, in this Brush Park building, which is now gone.

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Rivera’s mural debuted March 21, 1933, according to several documents. The controversy faded as more people saw the completed murals. The artist considered it his finest work. Frida and Diego’s story is now the stuff of legend.

Detroit News editorial on the Diego Rivera murals, March 19, 1933:

A mural, such as the Rivera mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which actually becomes an integral part of the building in which it is located, should be a decoration harmonious with the structure and with its general embellishment and contents. The first impression on entering the courts of the Institute from the public lobby should be an invitation, not a shock.

It is disappointing to record that to many that first view seems one of something psychologically erroneous, coarse in conception and, to many women observers, foolishly vulgar. Where the first impression should be one to draw the observer on with eagerness to see and enjoy the rest of the pictorial decoration, here instead there is a false, or at the best incomplete impression of our day to be passed on impressively as a record to the generations to come.

Even if the public, expert or otherwise, accepts the unaccustomed patterns, apparent distortions and distasteful lack of color harmony, which already seem to have aroused a measure of shocked criticism, it is admittedly true and unfortunate that the murals are without meaning to the generally intelligent observer without the artist’s own interpretation.

Conspicuously, the figures in the two great panels must seem a slander to Detroit workingmen. Liberties of art aside, it is scarcely surprising if complaints are heard that they convey a false impression of the man and the influence of his work upon him; that this is not a fair picture of the man who works short hours, who must be quick in action, alert of mind; who works in a factory where there is plenty of space for movement, where heavy burdens are borne by mechanical lifts and conveyors of many kinds, where there is good ventilation and light and every facility to encourage efficient labor.

But the most serious criticism heard, and needing examination, is that the whole work and conception is un-American, incongruous and unsympathetic; that 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. What must we expect the future generations, viewing this strange picture, will think of our men, our interest in them, our mad jumble of inefficiency? How will they estimate the industrial leaders, engineers, master mechanics, and fine types of workingmen who have contributed to such astonishing results? If Rivera were here giving us a true suggestion of a modern American industrial shop a modern Mexican prison workshop would shame us.

That this one and only space in any of our public buildings available for a really great work of art should have been used in a manner to provoke such serious dissatisfaction among many fine supporters of art in Detroit is without question a matter of profound chagrin, and it is not surprising if these art-lovers now feel that the opportunity might have been reserved for the work of a great artist more instinctively in tune with the purpose and vision of things and emotions truly American.

The blame for this unhappy condition is obviously not on the patron who generously provided the money, but on those who hold this property in trust for the citizens of Detroit and assented to this equivocal undertaking, or it must rest on Dr. Valentiner, and, if so, he must be placed as an unsafe leader in the art development of Detroit; and it is probably inevitable that a doubt will be raised whether the Institute’s executives really comprehend the community which employs them.

If weird and grotesque qualities bring the curious, they do not and can not raise the standard and high purpose of Art in our State. It is feared that they tend rather to mislead inexperienced and ambitious youth to accept a dubious standard. It would be a grave misfortune if these much-discussed works should injure rather than raise the pride of youth in our City or raise in the minds of labor a resentment against the leaders in high places who, by carelessness or intention (they will not know which), have permanently placed what may be regarded as a cruel caricature for the world and posterity to behold.

Owing to the criticism of so many, as already expressed, and the impossibility of an artist altering his work merely to please the people of “less aesthetic taste” than Mr. Rivera, perhaps the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work and return the Court to its original beauty.

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