When the Motor City Was a Symbol of Strength
Why not view Diego Rivera's 'Detroit Industry' murals as a summons to renewed greatness?
Wall Street Journal
Tom L. Freudenheim
Is it naïve to visit today's Motown and find oneself uplifted by a city in so much trouble? I think not. For starters, the recently reconfigured, vast and encyclopedic Detroit Institute of Arts is probably America's most visitor-friendly art museum. Moreover, it houses the "Detroit Industry" murals of 1932-33—a spectacular series of paintings by Diego Rivera (1886-1957) unlike anything else in this country. Here's a forceful array of images— industrial settings in which huge machines seem to threaten the workers operating them—as well as smaller vignettes and other scenes in varying scales that unite to create an elaborate, iconographically layered environment that envelops the viewer.
Perhaps it was once acceptable to subsume this vast array of works under the category of "Mexican mural painting"—public art in the service of social and political messages that was an expression of the Mexican Revolution and defined by Rivera, José Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. But pigeonholing the Detroit paintings that way doesn't do them justice. In her definitive book on these extraordinary murals, Linda Bank Downs suggests that "they represent the ethos of Detroit—the factory, working class, machines, and industry." Standing before them, surrounded by the magic of Rivera's now somewhat nostalgic imagery, one might also believe, at least temporarily, that the murals could inspire the energy needed for the city's revival.
The complexity of this mural effort cannot be overstated, and began with the commission from Edsel Ford, Henry Ford's son, who was a leading arts patron as well as Ford Motor Co.'s head. Also essential to the undertaking was the museum's director, W.R. Valentiner, who persuaded Ford to undertake this project. Rivera actually calculated the costs per square yard (there were more than 447 square yards in total), but the final contract was for just over $20,000 (more than $300,000 in today's dollars).
Working in fresco—essentially painting on wet plaster—requires dozens of steps to ensure the stability of the final mural. Assistants were also involved with the project, including a young English aristocrat and artist, Lord Hastings. A significant number of Rivera's preliminary studies were needed to refine the depictions of the many facets and personalities of Detroit's industry. It was to be both a readable celebration of place and an inspired creative effort.
The project was not without controversies. In the midst of the Depression, why was a foreign artist given this plum commission? The artist's political commitments were also questioned. Rivera was a devoted Communist, though this didn't seem to keep him from a busy social schedule cavorting with captains of industry. His politics came to a head only in 1934, with the destruction of Rockefeller Center's "Man at the Crossroads" mural, in which the artist had included a portrait of Lenin.
The once-palm-filled Garden Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts is now bare of anything but the Rivera murals, and some viewers have expressed regret at this loss of atmospheric effect. Yet the intensity of the paintings is so overwhelming that one wonders about an earlier era's sense of display. The massive north and south walls include three tiers of images and a complex iconography that would have spoken volumes to people at the time. They would probably have recognized some of the people whose portraits are included, and some percentage of the locals would have been able to read the industrial processes depicted. One is here reminded of Raphael's Vatican Palace frescoes, in which historical and mythical personages are depicted for viewers who were expected to be familiar with the images. There are other rich allusions to Renaissance art, such as the lower-level panels in grisaille, suggestive of Mantegna's altarpiece predellas.
"Production and Manufacture of Engine and Transmission," on the primary lower portion of the north wall, and the facing south wall's "Production of Automobile Exterior and Final Assembly" each convey an intriguing tension between the people actually doing the factory work and the monster-like machines with which, and under which, they are laboring. Indeed Rivera manages to capture not just the feeling of intense activity in an automobile plant but the kind of automaton-like rhythm we associate with assembly-line production. The viewer is left to ponder whether the workers are heroes of or subservient to their environments.
The narratives are clearly meant to elevate the workers' status. But at our distance from the time when these paintings were executed, blessed by hindsight, we might see them as victims—soon to be unemployed. It's this ability of great art to be read and reread that assures us of both its timelessness and its timeliness. Only on the south wall's lower right-hand corner is there a sense of brief respite from the factory's energy, as we see Ford and Valentiner quietly contemplating, but not quite entering into, this massive busyness they have created.
One could spend hours studying the minutiae in this grand array of visions actual and symbolic, and the two primary walls yield the richest visual bounties. But there's so much more to discover as one stands enveloped by the wonders of Rivera's imagery.
The benefits of technological advance are shown in a vignette of vaccination, depicted in a Nativity-like composition; the infant's face was modeled on the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, much in the news when the mural was painted. The pendant painting on that wall shows gas-masked men making poison gas—and each of these two smaller paintings is accompanied by images of cells, healthy and unhealthy, that reflect the narrative above. There's much more to gawk at as well. Massive figures of "The Red and Black Races" and "The White and Yellow Races" may look corny—or boringly Art Deco—to our cynical eyes, but they reflect Rivera's grand and inclusive vision, just as geological strata and Michigan's agriculture remind the viewer that industry exists within a comprehensive and nature-based world-view.
With justification, Rivera considered the Detroit murals his finest work. To some they might suggest the grandeur that was; to others, the inherent decay that follows moments of majesty. Why not also view those giant machine rotors as emblems of cyclical change, and therefore a summons to renewed greatness? There's a lovely irony in contemplating that this work by the 20th century's most important Mexican artist remains one of America's most significant monuments to itself.
—Mr. Freudenheim writes about art for the Journal.