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Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States” (1932), oil on metal (private collection)

DETROIT — The Detroit Institute of Arts’s major exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit closes on Sunday. This show was in the works for a decade, long before the city’s bankruptcy and the grand bargain, which shifted the ownership of the art from the city to the museum. “It is also a serendipitous celebration of this exemplary museum’s hard-won independence,” Roberta Smith wrote in her New York Times review. The exhibition may underline the museum’s financial freedom from the city, but it is hard to ignore its other dependences — on a selective remembrance of modern US history and persistent nostalgia, a type of repetition compulsion.

The exhibition chronicles the city’s impact on the artists’ relationship and art in three chronological sections: before, during, and after their time in Detroit. Much of the show focuses on Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals (1932–33) and the development of Frida Kahlo’s craft. “They kiss,” printed in large letters on a gallery wall, is the first thing visitors see upon entering the exhibition and sets the tone for the rest of the presentation. Further into that first room there is a photo to the right of “They kiss,” predictably of the couple embracing in the scaffolding of what is now known as Rivera Court. Audio guides are given out to everyone at this point, in a way that makes them seem obligatory rather than merely encouraged.

The exhibition lends more weight and space to Rivera’s work than to Kahlo’s, giving the initial impression that his representations of Detroit are more enduring. The city’s dominant narrative casts Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals as the artwork that best captures the spirit of Detroit’s economic heyday. Rivera’s works outnumber Kahlo’s, which are peppered throughout, while an entire room is devoted to the process of creating the murals, including a silent film of him working in Rivera Court. There are two other silent films in the exhibition featuring scenes of the couple in Detroit. Especially when so much of the exhibition is about the audio tour, these text-heavy silent films make for an uncomfortable pause instead of a reflective break. All of this feeds into a strange power struggle that plays out between the artists as the exhibition works to frame their work within a contemporary narrative about the golden age of US industry.

Installation view of ‘Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit’ at the Detroit Institute of Arts, with Diego Rivera’s preparatory drawings for the “Detroit Industry” murals (photo courtesy the Detroit Institute of Arts)

Diego Rivera, north wall of “Detroit Industry” (1932–33) (courtesy the Detroit Institute of Arts) (click to enlarge)

Rivera thought Detroit was ground zero for the American proletariat, that the global revolution could start here, and that his murals were going to inspire a better future in which workers would be liberated. In Hayden Herrera’s Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, she writes that he believed “Henry Ford made the work of the socialist state possible.” Nowadays, the only times I ever see crowds of people in Rivera Court they are there to take pictures with a wedding party. His murals have become prime examples of the way institutions are romanticized, how artists can participate in that romanticizing, and how their art becomes part of an establishment.

Originally, Rivera disliked the court where his murals now live. Herrera mentions that he called the stepped fountain in the court “horrorosa” (Spanish for ghastly) because it was “a symbol of the way we have clung to the old culture.” Oddly enough, it seems his murals have turned into what that fountain once represented for him. “Mural art is the most significant art for the proletariat,” Rivera wrote in the fall 1932 issue of Modern Quarterly. “But the easel picture is an object of luxury, quite beyond the means of the proletariat.”

Frida Kahlo, “Suicide of Dorothy Hale” (1940), oil on masonite (collection of Phoenix Art Museum, gift of an anonymous donor © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York) (click to enlarge)

Yet in the current context Rivera’s murals seem hypocritical and ironically bourgeois. After all, he did accept a commission from Henry Ford and contributed to the auto-maker’s cultural capital in a way that made Kahlo accuse Rivera of acting like a capitalist. Kahlo’s easel work, on the other hand, demands physical closeness and intimacy. Viewing her work in public, with the personal and political nature of its content, makes the experience very vulnerable. While Kahlo might not draw people across rooms with large, colorful work like her husband’s, the attention her pieces command and the emotional responses they conjure completely alter the way everything else in this exhibition is perceived.

If anyone’s work portrays the realities of life during Detroit’s industrial heyday, it’s Kahlo’s. Even Rivera’s assistant, Stephen Pope Dimitroff, said in hindsight in the 1966 documentary The Life and Death of Frida Kahlo, that her paintings are “so special they are like gems, really. She knew the essence of things, essence of people, essence of situations: she went right to the point.” Kahlo’s “Window Display in a Street in Detroit” (1931) makes this clear. Many sources cite her homesickness and nostalgia for Mexico as inspiration for that painting, but in Frida Kahlo; Torment and Triumph in Her Life and Art, author Malka Drucker points out that Kahlo was inspired to paint it after she “walked past a long-closed store that displayed street decorations.” Look past the window display and there’s that same emptiness and abandonment so often associated with contemporary Detroit.

Installation view of ‘Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit’ at the Detroit Institute of Arts (photo courtesy the Detroit Institute of Arts)

In Kahlo’s “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932), she depicts her near-death experience after losing an embryo against the backdrop of an empty plot of land, with Detroit’s industrial skyline on the horizon. There’s blood on the white hospital bed sheets, with symbolic objects floating around her. It’s surreal, but this painting is still a real portrayal of a life and experience within this manufacturing landscape. It’s strange that the DIA’s wall text doesn’t acknowledge that the scene Kahlo depicts was caused by a failed abortion, which Herrera’s biography recounts — and which I discussed in relation to another work in Diego Rievera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit. The artist sought out a doctor who gave her quinine and “a very strong purge of castor oil.” After she didn’t miscarry, her doctor said she could still have the baby, and she became excited at the idea. A month later she miscarried, an experience that almost killed her, and which she ultimately portrayed in “Henry Ford Hospital.” Kahlo’s works speak for themselves, for the experiences of a woman in Detroit during that era, despite the stories critics or historians decide to tell.

Kahlo’s time in Detroit was full of hardships. Her mother died while she and Rivera were living here, and shortly after she returned from the funeral she painted “My Birth” (1932). Her painful experiences in this city are felt not only in the way she renders her own body, but also in the way she treats the landscape. In the background of Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States” (1932) there are Mexican ruins on the left and a cityscape with four polluting smokestacks that spell “FORD” on the right. In these works she asserts her identity with radical juxtapositions of emotion and place that pit woman against machine. These paintings portray the effects of colonialism and the ruins of cultures that either don’t know how to give it up or don’t want to.

Frida Kahlo, “Diego and Frida 1929-1944 (I)” or “Double Portrait of Diego and I” (1944), oil on Masonite with shell frame (private collection, courtesy of Galeria Arvil, Mexico © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York) (click to enlarge)

Detroit has become a cautionary tale for what can happen when people cling to old methods in times that require innovation and radical change. The most interesting and important part of this exhibition is not how the artists loved each other or what they made in Detroit, or even why or how they made it, but the way it underlines the struggles and ties between art, labor, and matrimony that persist 80 years after the couple left town. The air of conventionality and traditionalism in the way this couple’s works and lives are displayed doesn’t feel like a celebration of the DIA or Detroit’s artistic future, but like a representation of the city’s continued longing for the perceived comforts of the past. The art is constantly in conflict with the institutions it ostensibly sought to romanticize: Rivera and Kahlo’s marriage; the automotive industry; and, more subtly, the museum itself.

“Kahlo fetishists might feel that the exhibition doesn’t pay enough attention to their idol, because there are many more accomplished Rivera works on view,” Tom L. Freudenheim wrote in his Wall Street Journal review of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit. It isn’t just the inequality in the number of works, it feels more like an imbalance of logic. Even though these artists were married and are presented together here, their works still demand separate attention because Kahlo’s paintings are these little truths that undermine her husband’s capitalist-funded communist charade. This exhibition is beautiful and powerful because Rivera and Kahlo’s art still manages to surpass the stories the museum chooses to tell about it. Their work points to Detroit’s persistent tendency to repeat its mistakes, to feed into these the old power structures. In order keep up with contemporary Detroit, the DIA should take a cue from Kahlo’s paintings and look beyond the museum’s walls.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit continues at the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) through July 12.

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Lisa John Rogers

Lisa John Rogers is a writer based in Detroit. You can also find her here or working as senior editor at Aftertastes.

5 replies on “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Offer Dueling Accounts of Detroit’s Industrial Glory”

  1. Almost but not quite. Ive seen this exhibit a few times now and although I can understand the sense of historical succession and linear progress that marxism and the author have in mind it is clear to me that like a work of art the particularities of this perspective is more of the context in a moment in time.
    The subversive aspects of the murals, although not apparent to most unless studied, are effective and refer to a deeper intuition, conscious or not on the part of Diego. Take the V8 engine depicted as the spirit pomp canine of Mexican tradition and how Ford points to the sky as John the Baptist. Or the commitment to renaissance mural tradition of the cardinal points and the pagan mythology employed. It may be that like Diego looking back on this time and seeing how his reverence for Henry ford may have been misguided or naive yet the work itself a climax of his production the author may find some disappointment in their own lack of discernment yet find this the height of their own art but I doubt it.

  2. The WSJ’s “communist charade” typifies both artists in two words. Rivera’s murals are beautiful taken at face value while the underlying anti-capitalist symbolism was deeply dishonest. It is difficult to understand Frida from a personal perspective since feminists seem to be romanticizing her into a female Che. Like Che, Frida enjoyed a privileged upbringing in a poor country. Her political views were likely influenced by Rivera who was twice her age when they married. At the time, he was a Stalinist and then not. Later, he was a Trotskyite and then not. Her self portraits are fascinating and best viewed with an understanding of the skew of left wing mythology.

  3. Interesting take on two great and very different artists, though allied in life, spirit and politics. I appreciate the bold opinion, one worth considering, though I think it’s somewhat oversimplified.

    Frida’s star has risen higher than Diego’s because her focus on the personal is more enduring and her explication of pain, though hers alone in specificity, is also timeless and common to many of us. She was ahead of her time, which has now come. Many discerning viewers will see this in spite of whatever relative emphasis on Rivera the exhibition has.

    Remember though, that with Rivera’s misplaced hope for communist industrialism, he actually spent much more time celebrating the indigenous peoples of Mexico, also a much more enduring theme. Engaging with the “enemy” as he did exemplifies his willingness to see past ideology, unlike some who stew in sterile theorizations, and look hopefully, courageously and humanistically for what we all have in common. His dream, though it met a dead end with totalitarianism the 20th century, especially now with corporate capitalism having taken over the world and threatening to end it, is far from over. And his technique is spectacular.

  4. It’s very easy to stand here in this century and launch very broad judgements on these two people, especially when they lived in a period where hard, pure information was difficult to come by. These folks, everyone during this time, were at the mercy of books, news accounts written in, what was then, a much larger world with a helluva lot more ‘mysteries’ and romanticized political ideas of what was right and wrong..on and on. Everyone thinks they are ‘right’ and then you find that you are wrong..you know? We’ve all been there and we ARE there right now..In so many ways we never really know until it’s to late. Idealism can be a fucked up joke, sometimes.

    I saw this show on the last night of it’s run and I enjoyed it very much, especially the production aspects of the mural process. The mural exists, IMO, in a clunky space..the proportions are difficult for a mural likes this..very tall room for it’s square footage..some of the broken up spaces in the wall work well..others, especially higher up, not so much…From what I’ve read, Rivera was struggling with many of these issues. But, the production sheets n small studies for the panels…all were amazing. Just from a work perspective..in the span of a year he produced so many incredible drawings..the guy was an INCREDIBLE draftsman..this is what really blew me away…the tech aspects left me speechless. I loved the Frida work as well..great contrast here against Rivera and interesting to see how what Frida was doing, making and going through during this years started to influence the actual mural..there is definite subversive action going on in the mural and props to Rivera for seeing it through..there were a ton of moneyed capitalist pigs looking in on this project..funny

    Hard to organize my thoughts on this. I was fascinated by the show as a study of 2 artists brought to a place ..one to do a commission and the other who started to paint and respond the personal issues etc…The show almost reads as a study of an unintended performance..A series of structures put into place, where 2 people were let loose to live and complete a list of ‘things to do’..with the work being influenced by everything around them..their celebrity in Detroit, their relationship, politics, making art, working, love and babies..very strange set of parameters, 2 mexican artists..politicized and working in the most ‘American’ setting ever – working for Ford, in Detroit during the rise of the automobile…I mean seriously? The whole thing is so bizarre to me..

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