My first thought when I saw Rivera’s murals Detroit Industry at the Detroit Institute of Art was, “this is beautiful.” Before I even began to look at deeper levels of meaning, or even began to look at the individual figures, I found Rivera’s use of color, shape and the Golden Ratio aesthetically pleasing.
Detroit Industry is a series of fresco murals in the Detroit Institute of Art that depict the auto industry of Detroit, specifically the empire of Henry Ford, painted by often-controversial Mexican artist Diego Rivera. It was commissioned by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, and took a year to complete, 1932-1933.
After my initial pleasure, I felt overwhelmed. The murals, as a whole, consist of 27 panels that cover the walls of an entire courtyard. The two largest panels take up 800 square feet each. There is a lot to look at – even the smallest panels contain details worth seeing and understanding. Initially, there isn’t much of a pattern either. If you’re not familiar with art history, Mexican history, the politics of the 1930s, and the narrative of Detroit’s auto industry, it’s hard to know where to start. Naked women, babies, produce, car parts, figures by the hundreds, volcanoes, and Toltec symbols jump out at you. I decided to take the audio tour.
It took the better part of an hour to listen to all I wanted to listen to, but I left the DIA that day not wanting to see anything else. Once I learned about them, I was so taken with the murals that I felt that looking at any other exhibition would be unfair – to the murals as well as the other exhibitions.
What to me was so impressive about the murals was the intentionality. There isn’t a square inch of the entire work that doesn’t mean something. Rivera was not merely filling up space. Every person portrayed has a history, and many of them were painted with real-life contemporary figures in mind – some political, some religious, some in entertainment, and some were individuals that Rivera merely met. Every fruit or vegetable that is portrayed is native to Michigan. Even the hair on the two women who symbolize fertility were chosen to be representative of the hair of North and South Americans.
The intentionality also comes through in the fact that there isn’t a single panel that exists in isolation. Though there are many smaller panels that are separated from the bigger panels, they all relate. Some relate to the larger pictures near them, some relate to smaller panels across the courtyard. And once I started seeing those relationships, it was difficult to stop.
Perhaps what drew me in the most was trying to put myself in the mindset of a Detroiter, or Rivera, in the 1930s. These murals were painted in real time. They depict the auto industry that existed then, the people that ran the city, and the economic and political turmoil the city, as well as the country, was going through at the time. Imagine someone now painting an entire courtyard of murals about the War on Terror in a prestigious art museum, and you’ll have an idea of what Rivera was doing in 1932.
I already want to go back. I can’t imagine not going back. And as much as I think these murals make sense to me now, I know I will be finding bits and pieces for years. To think that one man conceived of these murals that will take me years to understand.