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‘Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit’

‘Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit’

Posted by Juan Gavasa on April 04, 2015

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” is the story of two artists, two countries and one city. Filling several galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts, it is also a serendipitous celebration of this exemplary museum’s hard-won independence.

While the show was conceived nearly a decade ago, its opening closely followed the happy conclusion of a tense 20 months during which the city, which owned the museum’s art collection and was facing bankruptcy, explored the possibility of selling valuable masterpieces for quick cash.

Last November, a judge approved the City of Detroit’s plan of adjustment, which included an agreement called the Grand Bargain. Under this, the museum pledged to contribute $100 million over 20 years to the city’s pension costs, while state, local and national foundations pledged an additional $715 million combined. In return, the collection’s ownership was transferred from the city to the museum. Thousands in Detroit and elsewhere breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The Rivera-Kahlo exhibition revisits the creation of a masterpiece made in Detroit, for Detroit, that would have been hard to sell because it is an intrinsic part of the Detroit Institute’s building. “Detroit Industry” is an idealized ode to the city in 27 frescoes. These formed the project that brought Diego Rivera, best known of the Mexican muralists, to Detroit in April 1932, accompanied by his much younger wife, Frida Kahlo, also an artist. Over the next 11 months, Rivera researched, designed and painted the frescoes that cover the four vaulting walls of the museum’s courtyard, now known as the Rivera Court. It features heroic scenes of muscular workers and even more idealized earth mothers grasping sheaths of wheat or armloads of fruit. All told, the “Detroit Industry” frescoes are probably as close as this country gets to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

This is to say that they are both monumental and awe-inspiring and, given that they were made four centuries after Michelangelo’s ceiling, something of an anachronism from the start. Still, they form an unusually explicit, site-specific expression of the reciprocal bond between an art museum and its urban setting, and Rivera considered them one of the pinnacles of his career.

Kahlo’s time in Detroit was perhaps even more important, even though she did not enjoy her stay. When she arrived, she was well along in synthesizing the influences of Mexican folk art and Surrealism into a mature vision. But in many ways, the miscarriage she suffered while in Detroit spurred the searing form of self-representation that is her contribution to art history. This miscarriage was the second physical trauma of her fraught, intensely creative life, the first being a near-fatal traffic accident in Mexico City in 1925, which caused her continual pain for the remainder of her life and severely reduced her chances of having children. (Kahlo depicted the colliding buses in a 1926 drawing on view in the show’s opening gallery.)

Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts displays Diego Rivera’s 1932-33 murals, with images of idealized earth mothers and heroic, muscular male workers. Credit Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

The show, which includes nearly 70 works executed by both artists before, during and after their Detroit sojourn, is a kind of contest between a hefty hare and a tiny tortoise. Rivera takes up most of the room — as, tall and bulky, he did in real life — but Kahlo emerges in the final galleries as the stronger, more personal and more original artist.

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” has been organized by Mark Rosenthal, now an independent curator and scholar with decades of museum work on his résumé. It is studded with key loans, rarely seen works and surprises. It contains, for example, four of the immense actual-size charcoal drawings that Rivera made for individual fresco panels — fragile works that the museum is displaying for the first time in 30 years. Also on hand: four of the five paintings Kahlo made while in the city, starting with “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932), her reprise of the miscarriage, which shows her lying naked on a bloody bed set in an arid landscape with Ford’s River Rouge plant shimmering in the distance like an early Renaissance city. And there are three superb little exquisite corpse drawings that Kahlo made with her friend Lucienne Bloch when they escaped Detroit for a visit to New York City.

Yet in any other context, this exhibition might seem rather piecemeal, and it is riven with dumbed-down labels that emphasize the artists’ relationship, presenting a much simpler view of their artistic efforts than Mr. Rosenthal does in the catalog. But with “Detroit Industry” just down the hall, the show functions as a giant frame that illuminates Rivera’s frescoes to stunning effect.

A mesmerizing if slightly bombastic combination of heroic reality and nebulous idealism, and of friezes of figures alternating with deep vistas, the frescoes depicted Ford Motor Company blast furnaces and assembly lines; research scientists in their laboratories at Parke-Davis (later Pfizer) and workers trudging to and from factories. Nature is conjured not only by the robust female nudes but also in geological strata showing iron-ore formation and, in one of the best small panels, as black chunks of disease destroying crepuscular living cells. In a trompe l’oeil tour de force, Rivera renders a tanker carrying South American rubber as if it were a bronze relief.

There were hints of Rivera’s ambivalent Communist proclivities: a villainous-looking line foreman, visibly passive bourgeois visitors touring a plant, and a lone worker wearing leather gloves emblazoned with a red star. But as with any Renaissance work, there were also portraits of patrons: William R. Valentiner, the German-born director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Edsel Ford, the scion of one of the nation’s wealthiest families, who underwrote the project.

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