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Diego Rivera and the Fall and Rise of Detroit

Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s masterful Detroit Industry (1932-33), frescoed on the walls of the Rivera court at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), displays the city’s history as integrally tied to the rise and fall of technology and industrial mass production of the steel age. The work draws connections to the four races and earth elements, symbolically questioning the church, capitalism, and the ruling class with humor and fearlessness. It would seem the mis-management and excesses of the industrial economy and orientation toward corporate profits and militarism, alluded to in a number of the panels, has proven the downfall of the once-towering economy of Detroit. What’s not good for General Motors, so the saying goes, is not good for the United States.

Viewed today, Rivera’s magnum opus might have prefigured Detroit’s (and the USA’s) downfall, but also may envision a renaissance. It harkens to the earth, the races living and working in harmony, as is seen where much of the city has been cleared of slums and allowed to regrow with food crops, grasses and trees, with a number of urban farming cooperatives to foster a new economy based upon a sustainable view of the environment.

Commissioned by Edsel B. Ford (son of Henry, arts patron, and head of Ford Motor Company at the time) and directed by William Valentiner of the DIA, the frescoes are a series of 27 panels. They depict operations at Ford as well as medical, pharmaceutical and chemical industries related to the history of Detroit and its people. Yet the story is complex and (at the time) seditious, and must be decoded frame-by-frame to unveil a bold alternative vision presented in the face of Rivera’s benefactors.

Symbolism.  The murals, considered by Rivera as one of his most successful works, juxtapose bright earth colors and post-impressionistic simple forms against the smoke-churning machine-life of drab Detroit in the storytelling manner of Maya stelae. Celebrating creation and destruction through science, medicine, and technology, Rivera blends earth and sky deities, human and machine power, healing and poisoning, war and peace. He also captures the assembly-line automatonic intensity and a revealing tension between the factory workers, towering machines, and the stern managing overseers.

Massive figures of the “Red and Black Races” and “White and Yellow Races” reflect Rivera’s grand inclusive vision, with references to their correlative geological strata, iron, coal, limestone, and sand, indicating connection between steel and raw materials of the earth’s natural processes.

Rivera’s frescoes on the West Walls of the court are most telling, contrasting positive aspects of the aviation and chemical industries, where planes flew like doves through the world and science discovered new products to impove commerce and humanity. This compared with war planes, attacking like a hawk, spreading poisoning mustard gas, employees and pilots needing gas masks just to breathe. The will to militarism is a key indictment of Detroit Industry, then and today.

Concept and Controversy. Rivera’s radical political beliefs, attacks on the church and clergy, as well as his dealings with Trotskyists and left-wing assassins made him a controversial figure even in Communist circles. Critics viewed his race- and class-aware DIA murals as Marxist propaganda. Some considered the creation vulgar and slanderous to the working class. Certainly it questioned the ruling class, and some even used the always familiar term “Un-American.”

Rivera depicted certain Ford managers, a composite of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and the head of Detroit’s Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company as angry or mad task-masters. In another panel, a bourgeois and superfluous tour group humorously were rendered as cartoon characters such as Charlie Chan and Dick Tracy. Other times workers are portrayed as suffering from toxic effects and others with Communist symbols such as gloves adorned with a red pentangle and wielding a sledge-hammer.

Catholic and Episcopalian clergy condemned the murals for supposed “blasphemy” due to his depiction of the Medical-Nativity scene as a halo-adorned baby (“Jesus”) vaccinated by a nurse (“Virgin Mary”) and a doctor (“Joseph”) amid sheep (“Lamb of God”) and oxen and a horse (donkey), backed by three scientists of varying race (“three wise men”) dissecting a dog (in the name of science, of course). Calls were made to destroy the work.

In the end, both Edsel Ford and the museum stood behind Rivera and his masterpiece. Ford only issued a simple statement, “I admire Rivera’s spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.”

Jack Eidt  is an urban planner and environmental advocate for Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, and also writes for WilderUtopia.com. He can be reached at: jack.eidt@wilderutopia.com.

More articles by:

Jack Eidt is publisher of WilderUtopia, and serves on the Steering Committee of SoCal 350 Climate Action, a Los Angeles affiliate of the international climate change organization 350.org.

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