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When Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paid a seminal visit

When Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paid a seminal visit

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 21, 2015

When Graham Beal, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), realised about a decade ago what a turning point an 11-month visit by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had represented for the city’s art scene in the early 1930s, he decided to make an exhibition out of it. The culmination would be the DIA’s immovable crown jewel: Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, a series of frescoes depicting machinery and workers at Ford’s River Rouge plant, which the Mexican artist described as the finest work of his career.

During the period, which Mr Beal refers to delicately as a time of “interesting financial circumstances”, the planned exhibition was put on hold for several years. At that time the city’s funding of the DIA dwindled to nothing and Detroit sank ever deeper into a financial morass. After the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, the emergency manager considered closing the DIA and selling off its art. It was saved by a “grand bargain”. Together, private donors, charitable foundations and the state of Michigan raised $816m to help pay public workers’ pensions in return for transferring ownership of the museum out of the hands of the municipality.

 “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit”, which opened on March 15th, is the DIA’s first exhibition as an independent institution (it now belongs to a charitable trust) and the last major show under Mr Beal, who is retiring after 16 years in the job. As Detroit so nearly lost its 130-year-old museum, Mr Beal feels it apposite to be leaving with a show so focused on the city. The bilingual exhibition (all wall labels and short films are in English and Spanish) has an introductory section about the artists’ years before Detroit, a main part focused on their time in the city, and a coda. It brings together nearly 70 works of art, including Rivera’s huge preparatory drawings for the “Detroit Industry” murals.

When he reached Detroit in 1932, Rivera, then 45, was at the peak of his fame; he had just been honoured with a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Few even knew that his much younger wife, referred to as “Mrs Rivera”, was an artist. Yet Kahlo didn’t lack pluck. Asked upon arrival at the train station whether she too was a painter, she exclaimed, “Yes, the greatest in the world.” The visit would transform their respective careers as artists.

Rivera’s murals were commissioned by William Valentiner, a German art historian and director of the DIA, who had convinced Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford, to pay up $10,000 ($170,590 today) for the project. Rivera was a communist, but he never hesitated to pocket his fee—just as he had once accepted a commission by the San Francisco stock exchange, another engine of capitalism. “Asking Diego to be consistent is a non-starter,” says Mark Rosenthal, the curator of the exhibition, who points out that Kahlo was more ideological than her husband and accused him of “dressing like a capitalist” in his elegant three-piece suit.

On arriving in Detroit, Rivera immediately started to tour factories around the city, in particular Ford’s River Rouge plant, then the world’s biggest, making hundreds of sketches. Kahlo, who was pregnant, sometimes came along, but most of the time she was bored and unhappy. In July 1932 she suffered a miscarriage (which she subsequently described as an abortion), a traumatic event she depicted in “Henry Ford Hospital” with her lying on a hospital bed surrounded by surrealist images of a pelvis, a snail, the torso of a woman, a machine, an orchid and her lost child.

Kahlo had fractured her pelvis (and suffered many other injuries) in a horrific bus accident when she was 18, and “it is as if all her art derived from her accident”, says Mr Rosenthal. The experiences in Detroit sharpened her identity as an artist who mostly depicts herself and her many traumas. Rivera had encouraged her to “paint her life” and Detroit was the moment of Kahlo’s breakthrough. For Rivera, the visit marked one of the great successes of his career, even though the first showing of the murals turned out to be highly controversial. Depicting despondent workers marching in line or a machine as an animal was decried as subversive; some even called for the walls of the DIA to be whitewashed.

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