A distant view of Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) kissing is an unusual, if apt, photo panel introducing an important exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts; but it also reminds us of the baggage that accompanies us whenever we see shows of artists we think we know. While not an assertive attempt at revisionist art history, “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” makes a solid case for Rivera’s stature as a major figure in 20th-century art, even if fashion, feminism and fetishism have conspired in his reputation being posthumously eclipsed by Kahlo’s. And it reveals the artists in a different light, suggesting that, like politics, all art is also (somewhat) local.

Having spent the first two decades of the 20th century in Paris, Rivera painted some respectable cubist paintings and was very much a part of that city’s artistic community. Then, inspired by the promise of radical political changes, he returned to his native Mexico in 1921; he is best known as the primary master of the celebrated mural movement that is still one of that country’s artistic crowning glories. By 1929 there was already an English-language publication celebrating his murals. And in late 1931 New York’s Museum of Modern Art accorded him the honor of its second one-man exhibition (Matisse was the first).

About a year earlier, in December 1930, the DIA’s then-director, William R. Valentiner, had met Rivera in San Francisco and, as recalled in his unpublished memoir, felt that the artist’s “interest in economic and industrial development . . . [was] particularly suited to portray Detroit and its industries.” With funding from Edsel Ford (Henry’s son), Valentiner invited Rivera to paint murals in the interior courtyard of what was then a relatively new museum building. The culture clash appears obvious: An artist known for his involvement with international Communism and for the left-wing political content of his art was commissioned to create a celebration of capitalism (officially “Detroit Industry”) in what was then one of its world hubs, with the tab being picked up by a prominent capitalist. What he delivered, after arriving in Detroit in April 1932, turned out to be a brilliant visual encomium to both the captains of industry and the workers who enabled their triumph.

Happily, the Rivera murals have survived lots of political battles—over both their content and (more recently) their monetary value—remaining among the greatest in situ works of art in our country. The current exhibition sheds light on the careers of both Rivera and Kahlo, who were married in 1929, by bringing together 48 works by the former and 26 by the latter. More importantly, it enlarges our understanding of how the DIA murals were painted, with its special focus on the year (1932-33) the two spent in Detroit.

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