Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals by Linda Bank Downs

[Rivera] has built up a powerful narrative style of painting, which makes him, it is safe to say, the only man now working, who adequately represents the world we live in – wars, tumult, struggling peoples, hope, discontent, humour and speeding existence.’
(Edgar P. Richardson, one of the directors of the Art Institute of Detroit)

Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals

In April 1932 the Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, arrived in Detroit to fulfil a commission from the city’s Art Institute. Rivera had already painted two sets of murals in San Francisco and was coming fresh from being the subject of an immensely successful one-man retrospective at New York’s (new) Museum of Modern Art.

Chief patron of the Art Institute and sponsor of the murals was Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, founder of the famous automobile company. In fact Ford, by this stage, was no longer just running a successful car company, he had created the largest and most technically advanced industrial complex in the world. This industrial city within a city not only contained all the manufacturing elements required for the production of cars, it included factories turning out steel, cement, glass and electricity. The site had its own canals and railways, and had developed ship, tractor and airplane manufacture so that it could control the delivery of all the raw materials necessary to car production.

Like many visitors, Rivera was awe-struck at what he saw. He spent three months visiting every part of the works, having the engineering and machines explained to him, and developing his designs. He made hundreds of sketches and studies as well as commissioning photographs by the company photographer.

The murals were to be painted on the two long, tall, facing walls of what was, at that point, the garden courtyard of the Art Institute. There were to be two main murals, giant paintings in which Rivera captured the thrilling complexity of factory production – the construction of the interior of an automobile on the North Wall, the manufacture of the exterior of the car on the South wall.

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Above these giant paintings ran two horizontal bands in which Rivera painted less cluttered, more monumental figures depicting the races of the world and the raw materials lying under Detroit’s soil (on the North Wall [above] you can see the figures representing the Indian and African races; on the South Wall [below] figures representing the white and Chinese races.)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

And running along beneath the main panels were a series of smaller, rectangular spaces into which Rivera painted different aspects of the worker’s day – arriving at work, lunch break, and different perspectives on the works.

The East and West walls contained doors and windows so Rivera had less space to play with and so, again, painted symbolical rather than naturalistic subjects – on the East wall a long thin band with a foetus lying in the soil, on the West wall [below] two depictions of shiny, tubular machines flank the main door while directly above them is a black and white painting designed to look like a relief frieze showing a Ford transporter ship bringing raw materials from abroad, while above that is a set of paintings depicting the latest Ford airplanes.

The West wall murals

The West wall murals

In all there were 27 separate panels.

Rivera began painting on 25 July 1932 and finished work in March 1933. Despite vocal criticism from right-wing journalists, politicians and preachers attacking him for being foreign, an atheist and a communist – and attacks from the other end of the political spectrum, from communist writers and officials accusing him of selling out to the Yankee dollar – the murals were opened to tremendous critical acclaim, and became an instant hit with visitors.

The images were reproduced in papers and magazines and art books around the world and consolidated Rivera’s reputation as Mexico’s greatest artist with one of the most recognisable visual styles in the world. It is telling that when the Rockefeller Foundation was looking for bang up-to-date artists to decorate the lobby of their new skyscraper in New York, they approached Matisse, Picasso and Rivera. He was in that league.

This book

This book is a joy to behold and handle. It’s a large-size and hefty hardback (31.5 cm tall by 20.5 cm wide), the paper is beautiful, the print is lovely and crisp, and the quality of the photo and painting reproductions are first class.

The USP of the book is that it was only during the 1990s that a whole world of cartoons, sketches and photographs which had been involved in the making of the murals first came to light.

Linda Bank Downs helped to direct investigations into the archives of not only the Art Institute but the Ford Company Museum and Detroit’s other archives, so that researchers were able to slowly assemble a massive collection of preparatory works, sketches, cartoons, notebooks, plans, designs, as well as official and private photos which record and document every stage of Rivera’s researches, preparations and painting.

These are now all gathered together and explained in this book. The result is fabulously presented and absolutely fascinating. There are chapters on the origin and development of the commission itself, and then an absolutely riveting description of exactly how the murals were prepared, which includes a precise recipe for each of the five layers of plaster required, and detail on the painstaking preparation of each of the colours to just the right fineness and density.

We learn the biographies of the half dozen assistants who were required for the project (including the unlikely figure of Lord Hastings, an English aristocrat who wanted to help the working classes), and a portrait of life in broader Detroit – in reality, a grimly rundown city with mass unemployment, hunger, riots and endemic racism.

A chapter describes ‘the Cosmology of Technology’ i.e. explains the multitude of manufacturing processes which Rivera depicted, and the next chapter presents the surprising variety of art scholarly interpretations the murals have been subjected to.

The book ends with an entertaining account of the ‘controversy’ surrounding the paintings which Downs, after extensive research, now thinks might actually have been created by the Ford Company’s own press and PR people – and was a spectacular success.

All the way through there are excellent, top quality photos – of Detroit, of the factory, of Diego at work, of his assistants hard at work, of him mingling with his American hosts in embarrassed group shots, even of the great man sneaking a secret snog with his wife, Frida Kahlo, who dutifully brought him a cooked meal of vegetarian Mexican food, just the way he liked it every day at lunchtime.

Diego Rivera having a cheeky snog with Frida Kahlo on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1933)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo having a snog on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932)

There are extensive reproductions of Diego’s preparatory sketches and drafts and plans – and then the book goes on to present wonderfully panoramic views of each panel alongside extensive close-ups of details, explaining the function of each piece of equipment, the names of many of the men depicted, and also the cameo appearances Rivera painted in to the murals of his patron, the Institute’s director and a cheeky self-portrait, among many more.

This is a wonderfully intelligent and beautifully produced book about a major twentieth century work of art.


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

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