In the early 1930s, William Valentiner thought the Roman Baroque courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Arts needed to be spruced up. With a commission from Edsel Ford, he hired Diego Rivera to paint two large murals of "some motif suggesting the development of industry."
The end result was the Detroit Industry Murals
Diego Rivera, fresh off creating a mural for the San Francisco Stock Exchange
, started by visiting several of Detroit’s industries in search of inspiration. However, he was immediately smitten with Ford’s River Rouge Plant
, then the largest industrial complex in the world. Rivera believed that the skyscrapers, factories, and cars of America were modern wonders, all of which were embodied
by the Rouge
The murals, plotted for the North
walls of the courtyard, focused on the production of the 1932 Ford V8
engine and transmission, but Rivera sought to link industry with nature, echoing Ford’s attempts
at vertical integration. He wanted to fill the remaining two walls of the courtyard, and despite being in the depths of the Great Depression, Edsel ponied up additional funds to allow the mural’s spread to the East
Rivera signed off on the murals on March 13, 1933. Once unveiled
to the public, they sparked immediate controversy
. Much of the fury was directed at a panel of a child receiving a vaccine
, for it was considered a blasphemous depiction of a nativity scene. The panels of women holding grain
, representing the fertility/natural riches of North and South America, were shunned as pornographic. The racial integration
depicted, fairly unique to Ford factories
, was a radical idea at the time. Many rejected Rivera’s outspoken support of Communism, while the upper crust of Detroit thought it vulgar that a factory scene graced their art museum.
Despite the public outcry, both the DIA and Edsel Ford stood by the murals. Edsel
was famously unable to stand up to his overbearing father, but he held his ground for the sake of Rivera and the museum. He was not only awed by their beauty, but also by their compact accuracy; processes miles apart were depicted side-by-side.
After threats of whitewash, chisels, and other non-specific attacks, the murals survive in their original condition to this day. The Detroit Industry murals, rich with complex iconography
, are considered a masterpiece and were regarded by Diego Rivera as his favorite work. Rivera’s next project
was to be installed in New York City’s Rockefeller Center, but this mural was destroyed following Nelson Rockefeller’s objection to the mural's depiction of Vladimir Lenin.
The Detroit Institute of Arts has a fantastic online tour
of the murals that explains most all the incredible detail, history, and iconography within the artwork.