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Detroit was muse to legendary artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

Detroit was muse to legendary artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

They are Detroit legends, despite living here for less than a year.

Seventy-nine years ago, Mexican artist Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, rolled into Depression-era Detroit and quickly ignited so much controversy it nearly closed the Detroit Institute of Arts.

It was here, in this tough factory town seemingly on the verge of economic collapse, that both artists were pushed to create masterpieces. Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals at the DIA are considered one of his finest works. And Detroit is where a young and still unknown Kahlo created her first great paintings, one of which is now owned by another famous Metro Detroiter: Madonna.

Their story is a prototype of the fight we still have today about Detroit. Is it an innovative place for artists like Rivera believed? Or a “shabby old village” as Kahlo described the city in a letter to a friend dated May 26, 1932.

The epic tale of Rivera and Kahlo will be retold in a multimedia presentation during the upcoming Art X Detroit exhibition.

Art X is dedicated to the works of 38 local artists who have been awarded fellowships by the Troy-based Kresge Foundation. Today through Sunday, nearly 50 free events will be held at a dozen venues in Detroit, from a major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to jazz, classical, hip-hop, dance, theater, poetry readings and panel discussions. Rivera and Kahlo’s story will be told Saturday night at the DIA.

“Rivera reached a level of understanding about himself, his work and the world that is reflected in the Detroit murals and that does not appear in any of his work before and after,” said Linda Downs, author of “Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals,” adding that it is a “monumental modern work.”

Controversy in 1933

Long considered one of the city’s cultural gems, Rivera’s work initially angered a big swath of people back in the spring of 1933 when it was about to be unveiled. Many didn’t like Rivera for who he was: an avowed communist and foreigner.

“American artists should have at least been considered for the execution of this work,” said the Rev. H. Ralph Higgins, senior curate at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Detroit, in a 1933 Detroit News interview. “A question of much more (than) art is involved. It constitutes a war between communists and capitalism.”

Higgins was not altogether wrong. Communism appealed to many in Depression-era America. Just weeks before Rivera and Kahlo arrived April 1932, an estimated 60,000 marchers took to the streets of Detroit, many singing the socialist anthem “L’Internationale.” They were protesting the shooting deaths of five people during a rally outside Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge plant.

Many rich patrons of the DIA balked at the idea that a gigantic image of a factory, Ford Motor Co’s Rouge Plant, was going to be the centerpiece of the DIA, according to press accounts of the day. Dozens of religious organizations were convinced Rivera had mocked the Holy Trinity in a panel that depicts a child vaccination. The scene shows a young child with a horse, a cow and sheep at the infant’s feet. The composition of the figures forms a triangle like that of a nativity scene.

Additionally, groups representing hundreds of thousands of Metro Detroiters demanded that any public funding to the DIA be cut due to Rivera’s work. A front page editorial in The Detroit News on March 18, 1933, neatly summed up their anger:

“Rivera’s whole work and conception is un-American … and foolishly vulgar,” the unsigned editorial states. “It bears no relation to the soul of the community, to the room, to the building or to the general purpose of Detroit’s Institute of Arts. … This is not a fair picture of the man who works short hours, must be quick in action, alert of mind, who works in a factory where there is plenty of space for movement. The best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work (and) completely return the court to its original beauty.”

As the threat became more real, the international press soon picked up on the drama.

The irony is that Rivera, so-called loyal socialist, was in complete awe of Henry Ford and Detroit’s technology

“Henry Ford (is) a true poet and artist, one of the greatest in the world,” Rivera said shortly before he arrived in Detroit, according to press accounts. Rivera, according to his autobiography “My Art, My Life,” believed American engineers — creators of factories, skyscrapers and highways — were the nation’s true artists and Detroit perfected the best expression of American art: the large-scale factory.

While Rivera had no intention of glossing over the misery in factories or Detroit streets, he was clearly entranced by its manufacturing muscle.

“This is the great saga of the machine and of steel,” Rivera declared about his DIA work,

Despite all the conservative fury, what saved Rivera’s work was the approval of Edsel Ford and the public. Detroiters flocked to see “Detroit Industry” when it was unveiled. People seemed impressed that an artist as famous as Rivera created something about them.

“I have yet to see a young person who doesn’t like the murals,” Mrs. Oscar Moon told The Detroit News on March 26, 1933. “Rivera paints with American rhythm and we have to learn it. I know the type of men portrayed. Those murals are Detroit.”

Rivera would never again achieve the impressive balancing act he pulled off in Detroit — public support and the money of an American tycoon. His next stop was New York City to paint a mural commissioned by the Rockefeller family for Rockefeller Center. That was destroyed due to controversy because he wanted to include images of communist leader Vladimir Lenin.

Kahlo feels ‘bit of rage’

Detroit was the start of Kahlo’s most notable work. What pushed Kahlo, 24, at the time, to create here was her own tragedy and the city’s dire straits.

She clearly noticed a little more than the poetry of factories. Even as she and her husband were invited to all the right society parties, Kahlo bit the corporate hand that fed her. (It was Edsel Ford who paid for Rivera’s $25,000 commission.)

“High society here turns me off and I feel bit of rage against all these rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery,” Kahlo wrote in 1932. She deplored the open racism toward blacks, which she described as “medievalism.” Then she heard the many stories in Detroit that Henry Ford was anti-Semitic.

She, too, had a strange admiration for Henry Ford and even danced with the man during a Dearborn social function. But that wasn’t about to stop Kahlo.

“Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?” she asked Ford during a dinner party at his Fairlane mansion in Dearborn. According to Rivera, Ford laughed and called Kahlo a little pistol.

While in Detroit, she suffered a miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital, and her mother died in Mexico. That drove her to produce what critics contend are her first great works of art — a mix of her inner emotions and specific imagery of the city.

“Detroit was beginning of her brutal and truly unique paintings that now makes her one of the most popular artists in the world today. She created groundbreaking work there,” said Florian Steininger, a curator of Vienna’s Bank Austria Kuntsforum.

Vienna is one of several cities around the world to display Kahlo’s work. A staple of those exhibits — which always break attendance records — seems to be some of her Detroit works, which are now owned by private collectors and Kahlo’s estate in Mexico City.

At a recent Kahlo/Rivera exhibit at Istanbul’s Pera Museum, visitors were greeted by a huge photo of Rivera’s DIA murals as he stood on the scaffold and locked in embrace with Kahlo. Now that image is on display at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland, which is hosting the same show.

One of Kahlo’s most famous paintings is titled “Self Portrait Standing on the Border Between Mexico and the United States.” The small painting combines the Ford Rouge plant, Mexican ruins and her inner landscape.

In November, it was on display at the Austria Kuntsforum. Steininger admired the Kahlo work, simply stating: “A masterpiece. Pure masterpiece.”

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