The Detroit Industry Murals
August 29, 2012 6:01 PM   Subscribe

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 and South 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 and West walls.

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 and fruit, 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.
posted by Turkey Glue (19 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Note: The DIA's online tour has issues in which each section hiccups and restarts after ~3 seconds. It's normal, and that tour, in my opinion, is the best link in the post.

Additionally, I'm glad I can break in the Detroit Institute o' Farts tag.
posted by Turkey Glue at 6:03 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Murals are really fantastic pieces of Art.

Frida's hospitalization while in Detroit also sparked some controversy.
posted by HuronBob at 6:05 PM on August 29, 2012

What a great post! Thanks.
I am amazed how Rivera manages to paint the workers seeming both proud of their labor, and somehow oppressed at the same time. The flames, while celebrating modern industry also remind me of visions of hell in Renaissance frescos.
posted by cccorlew at 6:13 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

These murals are just gorgeous; thank you for this!
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 6:44 PM on August 29, 2012

Rivera Court is my absolute favorite place in the universe, visiting is a religious experience for me. Thank you for posting!
posted by lily_bart at 6:50 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I remember these being my favorite part of my first trip to the DIA and it's the thing about Detroit that I brag about to everyone. They are really quite something else.
posted by Maaik at 6:52 PM on August 29, 2012

That is amazing. I didn't really get a sense of scale from those online tours but this really shows how big this is.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:52 PM on August 29, 2012

The DIA is one of my favorite places in the entire world. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and my family went there regularly, ever since I was a very little kid.

The Diego Rivera murals in particular, and the museum in general, were something I took for granted for a long time--a really awesome thing that I loved, but that I didn't realize the significance of. You grow up around world-class art and you think Pieter Bruegels just grown on trees. (The DIA also owns The Wedding Dance.)

It wasn't until I was in high school and saw the movie Cradle Will Rock that I realized how controversial Rivera's work was and how lucky we were to have it. (The movie portrays Rivera's creation of the mural in Rockefeller center, and its destruction.)

I've moved out of the area (I go to grad school in Virginia now) but I was really, really relieved when Metro Detroit voters approved a millage to support the Museum, which has been in a perilous financial position pretty much since I can remember. Even in a crazily anti-tax era, people finally decided it was worth it to give the DIA public support. Makes me proud!
posted by Tesseractive at 7:07 PM on August 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wow. I had no idea these existed - they're wonderful. Thanks so much for introducing me to them.
posted by kavasa at 7:14 PM on August 29, 2012

Chalk me up as another suburban Detroiter that has vivid memories of seeing these murals. They fascinated and scared me at the same time.

Great post!
posted by marxchivist at 8:27 PM on August 29, 2012

I'm so happy to hear the news about the DIA getting stable funding! I got to see these on a vacation to Detroit a couple of years back, and they are a big part of why the DIA is my favorite museum that I've ever visited (and I've seen a good number of major museums in North America and Europe).
posted by Emanuel at 8:30 PM on August 29, 2012

Amazing post, thank you. People always get weird when I say it, but I do love his work more than Kahlo's.
posted by Theta States at 8:39 PM on August 29, 2012

posted by Rash at 8:47 PM on August 29, 2012

Edsel was famously unable to stand up to his overbearing father

posted by mattoxic at 9:10 PM on August 29, 2012

Good timing - I was just visiting Detroit and saw these for the first time 2 days ago!
posted by matildaben at 9:32 PM on August 29, 2012

Fabulous post! Thank you so much -- can't wait to dig in to all the links.
posted by Westringia F. at 9:56 PM on August 29, 2012

awhile back, while in school at wayne state, i had to take an art/culture pre-req class. the professor arranged a tour of the murals led by Pablo Davis, who had been an assistant with Rivera and contributed to the murals. i had seen those murals countless times before but those 2 hours stand out as the top highlight of my whole undergrad experience.
posted by dichronic at 5:02 AM on August 30, 2012

It's an astounding work, and the crown jewel of a world-class museum that's easily overlooked. Thanks, OP!

Fun game: Try searching for Rivera's three hidden signatures!
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:25 AM on August 30, 2012

I've never been a huge fan of Rivera, but this is probably his best work, and it's astoundingly great.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:59 PM on August 30, 2012

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