With new exhibit, the DIA looks behind “Detroit Industry”

May 7, 2014

Rivera working on mural smiling

A little less than a year from now, the Detroit Institute of Arts will open a major exhibit featuring works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The couple spent time from April of 1932 until March of the following year in Detroit while Rivera painted the masterful murals, “Detroit Industry,” that cover the walls of the museum’s courtyard.

Of course, Rivera spent his time in Detroit creating the revered murals, but this was also an incredibly productive time for his wife Frida Kahlo. One of the more famous paintings that she created during this time is “Henry Ford Hospital,” a surreal portrait that comments on both industry and feminism, the latter being a movement in which Kahlo was instrumental. During her tenure in the city, Kahlo transformed and developed her distinct style.

The exhibit is unique because it hinges on the fact that it could not be possible in any other city. Obviously, “Detroit Industry” cannot be picked up and moved in order to be loaned out to other museums. The work, which was recently deemed a National Historic Landmark, is an astounding backdrop for an exhibition based upon the works of Rivera and Kahlo.

The main, and perhaps most interesting, feature of the exhibit are the original sketches done by Diego Rivera that would serve as templates for “Detroit Industry.” Before beginning work on the murals, Rivera spent time drawing in the Ford River Rouge Plant in order to accurately capture what industry looked like in Detroit. Rivera’s work, which supposedly cost just a little less than $21,000, was completely funded by Edsel Ford. Though the sketches serve as the centerpiece, there will be approximately eighty works in total between the husband and wife, some of which is on loan from around the United States and Mexico.

Cartoon of Commercial Chemical Operations (Detroit Industry south wall), Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Cartoon of Commercial Chemical Operations (Detroit Industry south wall), Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal. Detroit Institute of Arts.

The city of Detroit is struggling under the yoke of bankruptcy and has entertained the sale of some of the DIA’s collection, even going as far as having pieces appraised. However, since the planning of this exhibit predates the bankruptcy by a few years, the pieces to be featured are not threatened by sale. In fact, none of these pieces have been appraised.

The DIA plans two “major exhibits” to be featured each year, with “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” running from March 15th until July 12th in 2015. When all is said and done, it is estimated that the display will be a seven figure investment, which will come from funds allocated for such exhibitions. The museum is banking on strong attendance and hopes that the immobile exhibit will attract visitors from all over the country. In conjunction with the DIA’s plans, other venues around the metropolitan area like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Music Hall, the Michigan Opera Theatre, and the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts will be planning special events.

Even though it’s still months away, there is an aura of nostalgia surrounding the DIA’s Rivera and Kahlo exhibit. Detroit’s former industrial glory is such a strong theme in Rivera’s work of the time that it’s hard to ignore how bad things in the city have gotten. It’s impossible to say whether or not this display will aid in the revival of Detroit, but “Detroit Industry” is a valuable resource for the city’s art community. With that, this exhibit will be a respectable and practical way to bring commerce, and possibly national attention, to a community that needs it.

Cartoon of Vaccination (Detroit Industry north wall), Diego Rivera, 1932

Cartoon of Vaccination (Detroit Industry north wall), Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal with red pigment over light charcoal. Detroit Institute of Arts.

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  • Dennis King

    Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo stayed at the “new” Wardell (Park Shelton) adjacent to the DIA while executing the work. The Park Shelton was originally The Wardell, designed by Harley Ellis Devereaux (then Weston and Ellington)…

  • nobsartist

    In a little less than a year, this may be the only exhibit the DIA has.