© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Detroit's Rivera And Kahlo Exhibit, A Portrait Of A Resilient City

A detail from the north wall of Diego Rivera's <em>Detroit Industry</em> murals shows workers on the automobile assembly line. After Detroit declared bankruptcy, the murals were at risk of being sold. <a href="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/03/16/image-258detroit-industry---north-wall-detail_custom.jpg">Click here for a larger view.</a>
A detail from the north wall of Diego Rivera's <em>Detroit Industry</em> murals shows workers on the automobile assembly line. After Detroit declared bankruptcy, the murals were at risk of being sold. <a href="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/03/16/image-258detroit-industry---north-wall-detail_custom.jpg">Click here for a larger view.</a>

This weekend, visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts buzzed with excitement over a new exhibit — it was a big moment for the once-troubled museum. The DIA spent much of the last two years under threat as its owner, the city of Detroit, looked for ways to emerge from bankruptcy.

A new exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts displays nearly 70 works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A new exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts displays nearly 70 works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Finally, in November, a "grand bargain" was struck. Foundations, private donors and the state of Michigan together raised more than $800 million to help rescue public employee pensions. In return, ownership of the DIA was transferred to a trust — thereby securing its future.

The exhibit, "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit," has special significance to the city — at its heart are Rivera's Detroit Industry murals, painted on the walls of the DIA. Grand in scope and scale, they celebrate Detroit's auto factories, and depict a kind of worker's utopia — men of all races side by side on an assembly line. Commissioned by Henry Ford's son Edsel, the murals offer incredible detail. One engineer at the time said the artist coherently fit 2 miles of assembly line onto two walls.

<em>The Assembly of an Automobile</em>, by Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal on paper. <a href="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/03/16/image-278the-assembly-of-an-automobile---diego-rivera_custom.jpg">Click here for a larger view.</a>
/ Leeds Art Gallery
<em>The Assembly of an Automobile</em>, by Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal on paper. <a href="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/03/16/image-278the-assembly-of-an-automobile---diego-rivera_custom.jpg">Click here for a larger view.</a>

But the grand murals stand in stark contrast to Kahlo's paintings, which are small and intensely personal. As the museum says in the exhibit description, Rivera romanticized Detroit; Kahlo rejected it.

Museum director Graham Beal tells NPR's Don Gonyea that the exhibit has taken on a deeper meaning for the museum and for the city as a whole.

"Until recently when you looked at the Rivera murals ... you saw a Detroit of the past," he says. "Sort of somehow that it was elegiac. But things have shifted so much in the past few months ... Now you can see the murals as something that is now looking to the future as well as looking to the past, and that all of the old engineering, all the know-how, all the entrepreneurial spirit is somehow in effect again."


Interview Highlights

On the time Rivera and Kahlo spent in Detroit

Rivera was invited here as one of the world's most famous artists to paint some murals in the really relatively new cultural palace of the Detroit Institute of Arts. And with him came his new wife. They had been married for two years. She was completely unknown. So you have this artist come here who sees the [Ford River Rouge] plant and the other auto plants, and he just falls in love with them and he loves all of this engineering and all this technology even though he's a Mexican communist who's not supposed to relate to anything so obviously capitalist. ...

Frida Kahlo painted <em>Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States </em>in 1932.
/ Detroit Institute of Arts
Frida Kahlo painted <em>Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States </em>in 1932.

And then you have with him diminutive figure, completely unknown, unformed, in a way, as an artist who loathed the U.S., didn't like Detroit at all, came and went as much as she could, going backwards and forwards to New York, and tragically having to go back to Mexico when her mother died.

So Rivera was here most of the time working on this enormous project, and Frida was here as an unformed artist. She went through the tragic loss of a pregnancy. ... It was through this ghastly experience that you see the emergence of Frida as a signature artist. You see her grasping the fact that she is going to be her own subject matter, something in fact that Rivera urged her to do as well. And so almost like out of a chrysalis, the recognizable Frida Kahlo arrives because of the pain and everything she went through in Detroit.

In Kahlo's painting <em>The Henry Ford Hospital, </em>she depicts her traumatic loss of a pregnancy.
2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
In Kahlo's painting <em>The Henry Ford Hospital, </em>she depicts her traumatic loss of a pregnancy.

On the Kahlo works on view in the exhibition

Way in the center of the exhibition is the small painting The Henry Ford Hospital where she rather gruesomely shows the fact that she lost a fetus and she shows herself lying in this bed in a very desolate urban landscape with the Henry Ford Company, the Rouge Plant in the background. She basically puts herself in pain in the middle of an unpleasant landscape, and she writes along the bottom of the bed "Henry Ford Hospital," which somehow links her accident with the Ford company.

On how Rivera's murals were a backdrop during the fight to save the museum during the city's bankruptcy — and what it means to hold this exhibition now

It was an accident of timing really. We didn't know about the bankruptcy when we started working on this exhibition in earnest, and we certainly didn't know how long it was going to last. But it really does seem appropriate. It does seem like a very effective exclamation mark. The DIA once again symbolizes the energy and creativity of Detroit. And that can be seen in the murals, which, you know — let's face it — were never going to leave that building whatever happened.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The south wall of Rivera's <em>Detroit Industry</em> mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts. <a href="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/03/16/image-287detroit-industry-south-wall_custom.jpg">Click here for a larger view.</a>
/ Detroit Institute of Arts
The south wall of Rivera's <em>Detroit Industry</em> mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts. <a href="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/03/16/image-287detroit-industry-south-wall_custom.jpg">Click here for a larger view.</a>