Diego Rivera’s Detroit Institute of Art murals are a beloved field trip destination for LSA professors Alex Potts and Rebecca Zurier. A new exhibition, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, tells the story behind the Motor City’s most famous work of art.

The Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex was the largest industrial facility in the world when Diego Rivera entered it in 1932. The 45-year-old Mexican muralist, fresh off a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, had been recruited by Detroit Institute of Art Director William Valentiner to produce a locally inspired work similar to the dazzling homage to California he’d painted in a stairwell at San Francisco’s Pacific Stock Exchange in 1931. Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Ford, provided $20,889 to fund the project.

Rivera agreed to paint large panels on the North and South walls of the DIA’s Garden Court, but he was so enthralled by his tours of Ford factories that he asked to paint every available wall surface: 27 panels, covering nearly 450 square yards. Valentiner agreed, and Rivera ultimately produced an astonishingly intricate series of scenes depicting birds, bombs, Brazilian rubber trees, pharmaceutical manufacturing, coal-powered electricity, Henry Ford, an infant swaddled in the bulb of an enormous plant, and the pumpkins, corn, and apples of a Michigan harvest. The two largest panels illustrate the Ford manufacturing process in sweeping panoramas filled with stamping presses, conveyor belts, blazing furnaces, and hundreds of workers assembling car chassis and installing steering columns. Rivera considered the mural series, titled Detroit Industry, the finest work of his lifetime, and the court that holds the iconic murals is now known by Rivera’s name.

Eight of Rivera’s preparatory drawings for the Detroit Industry murals are included in the new exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit.

In their 82 years, the murals have drawn tens of thousands of visitors and weathered controversy, neglect, and layers of tar from cigarette smoke. In 2014, they were designated a National Historic Landmark as “an exemplary representation of the introduction and emergence of mural art in the United States between the Depression and World War II.” They have also long been an important teaching tool for faculty in LSA’s Department of the History of Art.

Artful Education

“They’re much more ambitious than most paintings are in the 20th century,” says Alexander Potts, the Max Loehr Collegiate Professor of the History of Art, who has taken hundreds of students to the DIA on field trips. Even Picasso’s Guernica doesn’t approach the range and complexity of Rivera’s DIA series, he says. “Sometimes when I talk about it, I compare it to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”

Potts sees the murals’ artistic achievement matched by their historical significance, and he believes every U-M student—art history major or otherwise—should make a visit to Rivera Court before they graduate. Professor of History of Art Rebecca Zurier shares his estimation. Whether Zurier is taking students to see the murals for a historical survey course or a class on Art of the American Century, she finds the murals are a springboard for discussions on subjects ranging from fresco painting to the challenges of making art for a mass audience.

Zurier feels that in-person experiences become even more urgent in the digital age. Sure, she says, you can google almost any notable work of art, but “you’re seeing a pixelated, digitized image,” she says. “You have no sense of the physical nature of the work you’re looking at. Is it heavy or light? Is it bigger than you or smaller than you? Is it rough or smooth?” Rivera wanted to envelop visitors with his Detroit murals. “He was going to take over that room,” she says. That understanding can’t be captured by a smartphone.

Made in Detroit

The DIA has just unveiled a four-month exhibition titled Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit. The show marks the first time Rivera’s preparatory sketches will be shown since 1986. In her book, Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals, Linda Bank Downs (M.A. ’73) describes the sketches as “overwhelming in their beauty and monumentality.” Just as important to the new show, however, are paintings by Kahlo, who has arguably surpassed her husband’s fame and acclaim since her death in 1954. Kahlo suffered a miscarriage during her time in Michigan, which she chronicled in the haunting 1932 painting Henry Ford Hospital, one of the featured works. “The tragedy of her experience in Detroit gave rise to… one of her most famous paintings,” Potts says.

In 1925, Kahlo was seriously injured in an accident when she was riding a bus that collided with a street car. She drew this sketch called The Accident one year later.

Zurier says the exhibition beautifully fits into her current course, Made in Detroit: The History of Art and Culture in the Motor City. The course includes a bus tour of Detroit and a discussion of New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s 2013 blog post advocating for the DIA to sell precious artworks to help alleviate the city’s financial woes, which he followed up two days later with an apology and a retraction.  

Like many of Zurier’s courses, Made in Detroit is cross-listed between the history of art and American culture departments. “It’s kind of impossible to have a rich, full understanding of art without knowing the culture in which it was seen,” she says. She notes that the inverse is also true: You can’t fully understand American history without studying the perspectives that artists brought to it. Few works straddle those fault lines like Detroit Industry—a grand homage to American assembly lines painted during the Great Depression by a communist Mexican muralist who had studied the fresco techniques of the European masters. “All of those histories are brought to bear on understanding those works,” Zurier says.

And she points out that class trips to the DIA have an added bonus. “Of course, the students are going to notice stuff that I’ve never seen,” she says. “That’s the joy of going there with students.”