In April 1932, the celebrated Mexican painter Diego Rivera and his then-unknown young bride Frida Kahlo arrived in Detroit for what proved to be a defining 11 months for both artists. Rivera was commissioned to develop a monumental mural cycle for an interior courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Arts by its primary patron Edsel Ford, president of the Ford Motor Company. Rivera later considered Detroit Industry — a paean to the assembly-line workers of the Motor City — his most important work. Kahlo, who almost bled to death from a miscarriage at the Henry Ford Hospital, began to process the loss through highly personal works that would typify her later career.
Left: Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940. Oil on canvas. Courtesy MOMA © 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931. Oil on canvas. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, currently at the museum, focuses on the artistic and human dimensions of this seminal year. Organized by adjunct curator Mark Rosenthal, the show is centered around works each artist produced in Detroit — including eight full-scale preparatory drawings for the murals, dealing with the duality of agriculture versus industry, and seven of the 11 intimate works made by Kahlo that year. Flanking this exhibitive core are works detailing changes in both artists’ oeuvres before and after this seminal visit.
A pre-Detroit 1931 portrait of the couple by Kahlo showcases Rivera as the primary artist of the pair. Rivera physically dwarfs his wife who holds one hand while a palette and brushes are wielded by the other. A year later, however, a surrealistic lithograph made shortly after the miscarriage features Kahlo holding the palette with a third arm. It’s one of a constellation of symbols, including her baby tethered to her with an umbilical cord, surrounding the artist’s naked body that drips with blood and tears.
Two adjacent 26-foot-long drawings for the mural show Rivera’s original scheme of farmers harvesting grain. The final composition, however, flaunts a riveting image of an infant in the bulb of a plant. Symbolic of Rivera’s view that the soul of the people resided in the land, it undoubtedly also reflects the trauma he and Kahlo shared. The post-Detroit section, including Kahlo’s 1940 defiant Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, showing the artist in her husband’s suit and her shorn tresses snaking around her, presages how Kahlo would ultimately eclipse Rivera and become hailed as a feminist icon.
Left: Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957), Soviet Harvest Scene, 1928. Watercolor and pencil on paper. © 2015 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Rivera drawing — on scaffold. Courtesy DIA Archives
Of course, proximity to the murals themselves, the centerpiece of the DIA’s encyclopedic collection, increases the show’s power to compel. A shrewd move on the part of the museum, many holdings of which were in bitter dispute nearly all of last year, as city creditors sought to auction museum masterpieces to pay off the bankrupt city of Detroit’s debts and replenish coffers for civic-worker pensions. In an eerie parallel, there had been discussion of closing the city-owned museum and selling the collection during the height of the depression in 1932. Ford, who was personally writing cheques to pay museum-staff salaries, made the high-profile Rivera commission — which stirred much public debate because of its Socialist slant — in part to draw attention to the fledgling museum. ‘There’s oral evidence that Edsel Ford actually provoked the controversy because he wanted people to come back to the museum,’ says DIA director Graham Beal. ‘The year after the controversy, the city council restored the museum’s budget.’
Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957), Detroit Industry, east wall (detail), 1932. Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts
Beal conceived the current exhibition some ten years ago, but another fiscal crisis took the foreground. ‘After our renovation in 2007, we knew we were heading off a financial cliff because we lost all our state support,’ says the director, who guided the museum beyond a 2012 passage of a property tax earmarked for the museum through last year’s so-called ‘grand bargain,’ a deal between private foundations and state agencies that raised more than $800 million to cover the pension obligations in exchange for a transfer of museum ownership to an independent not-for-profit trust. ‘Ten years ago I had no way of knowing this would be my final major exhibition as director of the DIA,’ says Beal, who will retire in June, ‘but somehow it feels apposite.’
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, c. 1933. Courtesy DIA Archives
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is at the Detroit Institute of Art until 12 July
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