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 Italy a few years earlier. Detroit Industry is a splendid modern pageant, the hard labor of the assembly line reimagined with some of the dignity of dance drama.
At the same time, Rosenthal is paying homage to Frida Kahlo, who married Rivera in 1929 and although unknown at that point has become in recent decades a secular saint of art, her home in Mexico City a pilgrimage site. In Detroit Kahlo painted two of her finest autobiographical compositions, intimate images in which the conventions of Mexican votive painting are reinterpreted as private Surrealist phantasmagoria. Rivera and Kahlo shared a taste for theatrical effects. Rivera’s theater was epic, a grand percussion performance, while Kahlo’s was intimate, with haunted, reed flute sonorities summoning dark memories and nightmare visions.
Interest in Kahlo and Rivera is at floodtide right now, stimulated by a fascination with Kahlo’s idiosyncratic feminism and more generally by a long-overdue North American revival of interest in Central and South American culture, of which “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980,” at the Museum of Modern Art, is only the most prominent example. The NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale has mounted “Kahlo, Rivera and Mexican Modern Art.”
Kahlo is the subject of “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life,” at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, which emphasizes her involvement with gardening and the natural world. “Frida Kahlo: Mirror Mirror…,” at Throckmorton Fine Art in New York City, focuses on the many photographers who recorded her striking looks. A new book, Frida Kahlo: The Gisèle Freund Photographs, pairs the Mexican painter with a master of the camera best remembered for her impressions of James Joyce.
The story told in “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” includes two other important players, with an emphasis in this exhibition on Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, who by the time he decided to bankroll Rivera’s work in Detroit in 1932 was running the company founded by his father, even as he pursued an ardent interest in art and design and was deeply involved with Detroit’s cultural institutions as well as a freestanding design arm of the Ford Motor Company. Edsel Ford was a very complex man, as much aesthete as industrialist. Of course nobody can deny that he was also the head of a company that had permitted and even participated in a murderous crackdown on protests by laid-off autoworkers in March 1932, as the Depression was crippling Detroit’s industrial base.
No doubt Rivera, an unabashed Marxist, saw in Ford’s support of the murals, which were a salute to America industry and American workers, an act of civic generosity and celebration. Perhaps Rivera chose to overlook Ford the industrialist in favor of Ford the aesthete. And perhaps only a man as insulated from the troubles of the workingman as Edsel Ford could have imagined—if indeed this was the case—that Rivera’s mural project even began to compensate for management’s hardheartedness as the Depression worsened and the autoworkers’ hopes shriveled.
Rivera had a natural skepticism about all authority. He had been in Russia long enough in the 1920s to have no great love for the Soviet authorities, and was at least at times inclined to be somewhat forgiving when it came to American capitalism. He had decamped from Mexico for the US in 1929, and was something of a persona non grata both with the Mexican government, which had banned the Communist Party, and the Party, which did not approve of his inclination to continue to work for the government.
The fact was that Rivera, although he had come to be recognized internationally as perhaps the most important figure in the Mexican mural movement, had built his reputation not in Mexico but during the years he had spent in Paris, a bohemian in the cafés of Montparnasse. In the United States he found new sources of patronage. And he had a taste for the high life that the Fords and other wealthy Americans were glad to indulge. So the history as Rosenthal presents it is multilayered, with Ford, the capitalist patron, Rivera, the Marxist muralist, and Kahlo, who was emerging as a Surrealist mythologizer.
The fourth figure in the story is William Valentiner. He had been educated in Germany and worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before World War I. Back in Germany during the war, he moved in the same circles as Rilke, and was close to the painter Franz Marc, who died in the carnage. At the war’s end Valentiner found himself immersed in the leftist Working Council for the Arts, along with an emerging generation of avant-garde artists and architects including Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Walter Gropius, and Erich Mendelsohn. (The Passionate Eye, a useful biography of Valentiner written by Margaret Sterne and incorporating a great deal of material from Valentiner’s own unpublished memoirs, appeared in 1980.)
Valentiner had done his doctoral dissertation on Rembrandt, and in later years he would write about everything from early Italian Renaissance sculpture to the work of Brancusi and Calder, among the artists represented in his important 1947 book, Origins of Modern Sculpture. It was while visiting his friend the tennis star Helen Wills in San Francisco that Valentiner was introduced to Wills’s friend Rivera and hatched his plan to bring Rivera to Detroit to paint a mural in the museum’s new building, which had opened in 1927. (Close students of American modernism will know that Paul Philippe Cret, the architect who designed the Detroit Institute of Arts, also designed the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, that early-twentieth-century American temple to modernism.)
When Valentiner met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo they certainly made a striking couple. Rivera was a whale of a man; Kahlo, despite her strong dark features and her extravagant bohemian spin on traditional Mexican fashion, looked delicate beside him. Each was flamboyant, although in a different way. They certainly shared the Marxist distaste for the old vision of an art shaped by kings, soldiers, statesmen, and saints, which in turn emboldened them to develop new forms of heroes and hero worship, including the worship of the self. The Renaissance or Baroque images of power—the prince or soldier on his handsome steed—were replaced in Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals by the heroism of the phalanx of workers and the heroism of the machine, while for Kahlo there was the heroism of the individual psyche.
Rivera once said to a reporter that the Detroit murals were the finest work he ever did, and there is no question that his imagination was strengthened by industrial Detroit, and particularly by Ford’s immense Rouge factory complex. For Rivera, long familiar with machine age imagery in painting and photography, the reality of Detroit had to have some of the beguiling magic of a modernist dream. Once he arrived in the city in April 1932, fresh from a sensationally successful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Rivera’s vision for the murals grew and grew, eventually encompassing all four walls of the museum’s Garden Court, with the vast ensemble completed in March 1933 after some seven months of steady labor.
In an important book on the murals published in 1999, Linda Bank Downs elucidates a complex iconography that embraces geological evolution, the origins of human life, and the four races of humanity.* The success of the murals, however, has everything to do with the two immense panels, occupying most of the north and south walls, that represent the production and assembly of the automobile, from the internal workings of the engine and transmission through the stamping and spot welding of the body parts. What is so extraordinary is Rivera’s synthesizing imagination. What he found at the Ford plant in Detroit was an assembly line spread through a series of buildings that did not easily lend itself to visual interpretation. He reimagined all the variegated activities as going on simultaneously in two vast, idealized factory spaces, with workers and machinery connected by a grand arabesque of snaking conveyor belts; the action was now not sequential but symphonic.
In Detroit Diego Rivera achieved an unforced grandeur rare in the work of an artist all too willing to wow audiences with an attention-grabbing but off-putting coarseness of color and design. Perhaps it was something in the unassailable power and immediacy of the subject that settled Rivera, by nature a swaggering personality, into an unexpected poetic imperturbability. He brought to his work in Detroit an austere splendor that while not reaching the summits of the fresco cycles of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca is not undone by the comparison.
Rivera’s dozens of working people, some with their faces and postures admirably individualized, are provocatively juxtaposed with the beautifully limned factory interiors. He brings to his representations of machinery some of the passion for the inanimate that we know in Fernand Léger’s machine age canvases and, looking back farther, in Paolo Uccello’s representations of geometric solids and elaborate suits of armor. Rivera handles the fresco technique beautifully, working in water- based paints on wet plaster with a modest yet confident painterly touch that gives the intricate compositions, with their wonderfully worked-out geometries, some breathing room. And his color, which can be strident and localized, here achieves an overall blue-gray beauty, with the silvery sonorities of the bulky machinery setting off the workingmen’s ruddy flesh.
If for Rivera, who was forty-six when he completed Detroit Industry, painting the murals was a culmination, for Frida Kahlo, who was twenty years younger, Detroit was in some sense the beginning of everything. It was in Detroit that she lost her second pregnancy—the cause, some now think, may have been an abortion rather than a miscarriage. In the small painting entitled Henry Ford Hospital (1932) she transformed the traumatic experience into an explosive dreamscape, but one realized on a miniaturist’s scale. Kahlo imagined herself naked in the hospital bed, the bed almost floating in a deserted landscape with industrial Detroit just over the horizon, her body attached by delicate strands to a number of emblems, some enigmatic, some clear: a fetus, a pelvis bone, a snail, an orchid.
For Kahlo, who in marrying the older Rivera was glad to find herself moving in the international avant-garde, the very unlikeliness of Detroit as a setting may have fueled her appetite for autobiographical allegory. “I am the subject I know best,” she explained, and it seems that no other subject would ever really do, the story of her life cycling back time and again to the traumatic injuries she had suffered in a tramcar accident as a young woman. Another small painting done in Detroit, Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States (1932), shows Kahlo in a pink dress, lace fingerless gloves, and an elaborate necklace. She has a cigarette in one hand, a Mexican flag in the other. To her right she paints the ruins of ancient Mexican civilization, to her left the rising towers of the capitalist US. Working on a surface just over twelve inches high, Kahlo includes flowers and electronics, ancient idols and contemporary smokestacks.
In the middle of it all Frida Kahlo stands tall, her famous dark unplucked eyebrows meeting in the middle, a goddess bestriding the Americas. Small paintings such as this are the best things Kahlo ever did; they are a series of votive-like visual meditations, with something poignant, even tragicomic in the fire-and-ice intensity of her autobiographical tales. The larger, more conventional self-portraits that often preoccupied Kahlo in later years are by comparison anticlimactic, blandly hagiographic even when there are monkeys climbing here and there, the cult of self now emptied of content.
Perhaps both Kahlo and Rivera benefited from the distance that Detroit gave them from the hothouse atmosphere of Mexico City, where their every move was watched by friends and foes, and on their return the vagaries of their marriage (they divorced at one point and then remarried), their involvement with Trotsky, and sundry other social and political entanglements became the stuff of gossip and, eventually, legend. Rivera rarely demonstrated the kind of pictorial tenderness—it strikes me as a reflection of gratitude—he brought to his portraits of Edsel Ford and William Valentiner, who together take the traditional roles of donors and patrons in the lower-right corner of the south wall of Detroit Industry. Rivera’s relations with Ford will forever remain something of an enigma. Valentiner, in his memoirs, concluded that whatever the differing priorities of the capitalist and the Marxist, it counted for a good deal that Ford “was the only person in Detroit industry who had any interest in modern art.”
A related subject, which although one not really dealt with in the Detroit show may shed light on Rivera’s relations with Ford, is Rivera’s involvement with the Rockefeller family in New York around the same time. This phase of Rivera’s career—which has as many enigmatic undercurrents as the Detroit story—was explored by the curator Leah Dickerman in “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art,” an important exhibition mounted at MoMA in 2011–2012 to commemorate Rivera’s 1931–1932 show at the museum, which featured a group of portable murals done for the occasion. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a founder of MoMA, was a strong supporter of Rivera’s work; she was delighted in the enthusiastic popular response to Rivera’s MoMA retrospective; and she clearly wanted only the best for the Mexican muralist.
Why then, when the Rockefeller family around the same time gave him the commission for the Man at the Crossroads mural for Rockefeller Center and to a not insignificant degree allowed him to do as he pleased, did Rivera feel compelled mere weeks after finishing work in Detroit to precipitate a crisis that led to the destruction of the New York mural? How essential to the mural was his insistence on including a portrait of Lenin and what many felt to be an insulting portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr., Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s husband?
It is a little too easy to argue that the Rockefeller debacle was a matter of pure principle on Rivera’s part, considering that he had been content to work on a project bankrolled by Edsel Ford in Detroit only weeks before. Of course one can argue that whatever Rivera’s and Ford’s disagreements about how to treat the workingman, they both saw in Detroit Industry not a political statement but a vision of industrial man that could be embraced by capitalist and Communist alike. It would be a mistake to regard Detroit Industry as political art, for whatever the satiric or sardonic representations of some of the dramatis personae, it is best understood as an industrial pastoral—a vision of a better world to come.
Perhaps the Rockefeller Center debacle provided a kind of catharsis for Rivera, a way of assuaging whatever discomfort he had felt about his collaboration with Ford in Detroit. It was Valentiner’s feeling that in Detroit, a city that Rivera may have seen as far from the New York limelight, he was more willing to fall into an easy alliance with a captain of industry.
If you wanted to be mechanistic about the embrace of Rivera by the Fords and the Rockefellers, you could emphasize the interest that US industrialists had at the time in Mexico and Central and South America. Ford set up a factory in Mexico and there was of course the attraction of natural resources south of the border. Then again what is one to make of the fact that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose family had expunged the work of the Communist muralist, eventually donated to the Museum of Modern Art a sketchbook that Rivera had made in Moscow in 1927? This sketchbook is loaded with drawings of Soviet Communist demonstrations, the watercolor pages showing many with red flags and red banners. Did Mrs. Rockefeller believe that Rivera’s politics could be set aside in the name of art for art’s sake, the red of those Soviet sketches admired as a formal decision? Or did she feel some sympathy for Rivera’s political views?
There are no simple answers to these questions. In the interlocking worlds through which all these people were moving in Detroit and New York in the 1930s, social and artistic issues were debated with an intensity we might find incredible. But there was also an underlying faith in the importance of artistic endeavors, a faith that may sometimes have carried all before it, trumping ideological differences in ways we may find equally incredible today. Turning back for a moment to Valentiner, we can see that there is an artistic logic linking his interest in Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance and Rivera’s Detroit Industry, with Bruegel’s attention to the beauties of ordinary experience in The Wedding Dance echoed in Rivera’s beguiling feeling for quotidian labor.
Rivera certainly saw in Bruegel’s dancing peasants a source of inspiration. He told Valentiner that he felt “the greatest sympathy” for Bruegel and commented, “It will be difficult for me to make an impression in a museum which has a Pieter Bruegel hanging on its walls.” But before we argue for Valentiner as the advocate of the common man in art, we must remind ourselves that he bought for Detroit the first painting by Matisse, the formalist’s formalist, to enter a museum in the United States. Valentiner also made important purchases in Trecento and Quattrocento religious painting and sculpture. It was not one kind of art or another that held Valentiner’s attention, but the variegated possibilities of art as art.
Accounts of the Detroit murals invariably include a discussion of all the controversies precipitated by their unveiling in 1933, with newspapers claiming “a slander to Detroit workingmen,” attacks on the murals as “un-American,” and calls for their removal. Then something extraordinary began to happen, as Rivera’s frescoes drew increasingly sympathetic crowds to the museum. Detroit Industry has remained a favorite with museumgoers over the decades, although curators and museum officials tended to disparage the murals during the cold war and even after, as examples of a Socialist Realist vision best forgotten; a “wrong-headed exercise” was one curator’s impression in the 1970s.
If Rivera’s work is now almost universally embraced, aren’t we justified in believing that it is largely because the people involved with the commission in the early 1930s knew a lot about what makes art last? In his memoirs, Valentiner recalled that Edsel Ford, on seeing some early studies, “was carried away by the accurate rendering of machinery in motion and by the clearness of the composition”—exactly what moves us eighty years later. Ford was making an aesthetic judgment.
Valentiner, Ford, and Rivera knew they were part of a historic exploration of the possibilities of the art of the mural. It was an exploration that dated back to Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s neoclassical murals of the late 1800s. It embraced countless experiments in wall decoration both abstract and representational in Europe and the Americas in the 1920s and 1930s. And it would reach a climax in 1937, four years after Rivera finished Detroit Industry, with Picasso’s Guernica, the clarity inherent in the art of the mural now shattered by the realities of the Spanish civil war.
Rivera’s Detroit Industry, both a monument to a particular time and a work of art with a timeless value, is now the occasion for “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” which looks to be a blockbuster event for the city. That’s cause for celebration. But what interests me more than the crowds at the show is something rather more difficult to explain, something I first noticed a couple of years ago, when I visited the Detroit Institute of Arts on a freezing cold January weekday. Even with the city’s streets nearly impassable, the museum was attracting an ardent albeit small audience. At a time when museumgoing in New York can feel like one more consumer activity—you pop into MoMA to look at a Picasso and then into Uniqlo to buy a cashmere sweater—visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts recognize that they are in the presence of the extraordinary.
This is a city that has been brought low by an economic and social catastrophe of almost unimaginable dimensions. Hard choices need to be made, stretching limited budgets to dramatically improve blighted neighborhoods and educational prospects, while encouraging public and private funding that will advance what some already see as major signs of renewal in old and new industries. Everybody agrees on the need to rehabilitate even more of the city’s grandest old buildings while supporting agile, creative enterprises, particularly in the service industry.
In such a time and place, museumgoers respond instinctively to the beauty, grandeur, and seriousness of the Detroit Institute of Arts. People pay attention, even when they’re standing in a gallery in the permanent collection where the works on display—Romanesque sculptures or sixteenth-century Mannerist paintings—are not only unfamiliar but also by their very nature difficult to appreciate or understand. I’m not referring only to middle-aged museumgoers. I’m talking about young people, too. In the midst of the city’s economic and social wreckage, art offers its own, mysterious varieties of order.
I am left wondering what the people who shape museum policy today in New York, London, Paris, and other world centers make of art’s powers. Many of them, when they speak out, seem to care more about strategies than principles. What is fascinating about William Valentiner is that his principles appear to have been instinctive. And what instincts he had—an Old World aesthete with a keen admiration for Rilke, he saw what a mural by Rivera and a masterwork by Bruegel could mean for a midwestern metropolis. How on earth did he figure that out? What gave Valentiner the courage to ask the city’s Arts Commission to spend an entire year’s acquisitions budget on a single painting, Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance? And how was it that Edsel Ford saw fit to pay for Rivera’s murals, when it would have been easy for him to conclude that he was working against his own interests?
What is sure is that neither Valentiner nor Ford turned to polls, surveys, or what is now known as big data as they made their decisions. In a city whose greatness was grounded in the hard-nosed calculations of assembly line production, they built the Detroit Institute of Arts on an entirely different set of values—the transcendent values that businessmen are said to spurn or at best regard as the icing on the cake. Valentiner and Ford understood that transcendent values have a real value in the real world. They were surely right. If you have any doubt about that, just take a look at the Detroit Institute of Arts.