The period between April 1932 and March 1933, when artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo sojourned in Detroit, was a desperate time for the city. The Great Depression had hit so hard that officials cut the Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) budget to just a tenth of what it had been before; there was even talk of shutting it down and selling off its collections. “Things were horrible, worse than they were two years ago,” curator Mark Rosenthal told Hyperallergic.
Rivera had arrived to paint his famous Detroit Industry murals at DIA, and despite the Motor City’s woes, was fascinated by what he saw. The Marxist painter worshipped Henry Ford and thought the industrial production exemplified by the River Rouge automobile factory could bring about utopia. The 27 panels he created are still widely considered one the 20th century’s greatest artistic reflections on technology.
It’s strangely fitting, then, that DIA’s first major exhibition since the city settled its bankruptcy (with the museum’s help) revisits this unfortunate period and its incredible artistic legacy. Opening this weekend, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit explores the year that one of art’s most famous couples spent in the city. “It’s a wild coincidence, because when the exhibition was first conceived a bankruptcy was being discussed, but nothing yet to do with the museum,” Rosenthal said. “There’s a sense of coming full circle.”
Rivera and Kahlo’s stay in America’s heartland proved transformative for them both. When they arrived, Rivera was already famous, having just had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — only the second the institution had ever devoted to a living artist (the first was Matisse). For the next several months, he sketched Ford’s plant with a lover’s admiring eye and a draftsman’s deft hand, creating massive drawings that were transferred by assistants to DIA’s walls. The museum saved the original cartoons, now on display for the first time since a retrospective in 1986. “[In the drawings], you’re seeing the line and the artist’s hand, whereas when you’re looking at the finished painting it’s a picture,” Rosenthal noted. “The drawing curator keeps walking around staring and marveling at them.”
While the newspapers praised her husband, they referred to Kahlo simply as “Mrs. Rivera.” That would soon change. Before Detroit, the artist had sporadically painted a few relatively conservative portraits of family members. But after suffering through the loss of a pregnancy and the death of her mother while far from home (Mexico City), she began to paint herself in a powerfully vulnerable way.
Kahlo completed two important pieces while in Detroit. “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932) depicts the artist lying naked in a bloody hospital bed; the towers of the Ford Industry Plant rise ominously in the distance. “Diego at the time said no woman had ever painted such a subject,” Rosenthal said. “I think it’s fascinating to think about that painting vís-a-vís the male gaze and all these paintings of women in beds. This was radical. It was the beginning.”
The second painting, “Self-portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States” (1932), shows Kahlo straddling the US-Mexico border. The left half of the work is sunny and bright, a landscape of mysterious Aztec ruins and vibrant native flowers; to the right, the pollution of Ford’s factories chokes the air, suppressing all signs of life. The image shows the degree to which Kahlo’s point of view differed from her husband’s. “[In his murals], Diego was trying to conceive a grand meeting of the Northern and Southern hemispheres in one colossal new entity,” Rosenthal explained. “Frida didn’t see it that way. She didn’t think the hemispheres would ever be united.” In fact, “Henry Ford Hospital” might even be interpreted as a bitter punch at Rivera’s adoration of the car company; Kahlo imprinted Ford’s name across the bed in the work, as if spelling out a cause of her pain.
The tides of their careers would soon change. After Rivera completed the DIA murals in 1933, he headed to New York to work on another commission at Rockefeller Center, but it was torn down after he included a portrait of Lenin and showed one of the Rockefellers drinking. Dejected and morose, Rivera returned to Mexico with Kahlo. He continued working for another 25 years, but his career was never as illustrious as before.
Meanwhile, Kahlo was claimed by the Surrealists and began showing her work in New York and Paris; when the women’s movement discovered her in the 1970s, her fame exploded. “There was a tremendous reversal of fortune,” Rosenthal said. “When they came here, he was the big famous artist and she was unknown. Today it’s often noticed in the Rivera Court, where these paintings are — I’ve often heard it myself, but others at the museum have heard it too — people will be talking and they’ll say, ‘Oh, these paintings were done by the husband of Frida Kahlo. I can’t think of his name.’”
Detroit too has had its ups and downs, from the industrial boom spurred by World War II to the economic decline that became evident after the 1967 riots and culminated in the 2013 bankruptcy. Today, cheap rent is sparking a revival that’s drawn many artists to the city. Hopefully they will leave a legacy of their own.