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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.