Splendor in Ford’s Detroit

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit

an exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, March 15–July 12, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition by Mark Rosenthal and others
Detroit Institute of Arts, 248 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Detroit Institute of Arts © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The north wall of Diego Rivera’s mural Detroit Industry (1932–1933) at the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicting assembly line workers at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant

Can a museum director who retired in 1945 possibly matter in 2015? The answer is yes, if we are talking about William R. Valentiner, the German art historian who came to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1924 and during the dark days of the Great Depression transformed an undistinguished institution into one of America’s most important museums. It was Valentiner who in the early 1930s arranged both the purchase of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance, one of the grandest paintings in an American collection, and the creation by Diego Rivera of Detroit Industry, probably the greatest mural cycle in the United States.

Without those prized possessions, the Detroit Institute of Arts would never have become what it has been in recent years, a symbol of hope in the midst of Detroit’s agonizing bankruptcy proceedings. When a sell-off of Bruegel’s masterwork along with other museum pieces was threatened in 2013, a national controversy erupted. Matters went far enough that one of the international auction houses was brought in to evaluate the art purchased with city money in the collection. That the museum’s treasures were then preserved—with major support from local and national foundations—is a rare reminder, amid a new Gilded Age and its cultural follies, of how important it is that the arts get support from different parts of society. Among the major contributors were the Ford Foundation and A. Paul Schaap, the CEO of a Michigan biotech company and a former professor.

To look back past our own Great Recession to developments in the arts in Detroit during the Great Depression is to discover an extraordinarily complex situation. This is a story that upsets most fixed assumptions about the relationship between art and society, making hash of cultural pieties on both the left and the right. “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” the exhibition currently at the Detroit Institute of Arts, while it cannot do full justice to developments in Detroit in the early 1930s, has been deftly organized by Mark Rosenthal, until recently an adjunct curator at the museum.

Rosenthal’s main focus—if not in the catalog then certainly in the galleries—is on how Rivera put together his immense panorama of American industry, moving from small compositional studies to the full-sized drawings known as cartoons that were then transferred to the walls. We see Rivera’s direct responses to the automobile industry, and how he worked out the subtle play of surface pattern and deep fictive space that adds twentieth- century accents and inflections to the traditions of Renaissance wall painting that he had studied in…

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