Linda Bank Downs, Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999)

I spent much of my childhood and early adolescence in Toledo, Ohio, right down the road from Detroit. Although I remember traveling to Detroit and vicinity with my parents more than once, I'm quite certain that they never took me to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). I first encountered the Detroit Industry Murals when they appeared for sale as posters in one of those progressive catalogues we still get in the mail every now and then. From the time I first saw them, I liked them a lot but couldn't figure out what I would do with them. So, I didn't order them and they disappeared from the catalogue. But I kept thinking about them....

Then, about a year ago, I found Linda Bank Downs' splendid book about the murals. In 1973, when Downs was working as a junior education curator at the DIA, she started researching the paintings so that she could write a text for museum docents to use while conducting tours. She quickly learned that no one had studied the creation of the murals or examined the extensive archival record of this process since the early 1930s, when they were painted. Over the next several years, Downs and a number of colleagues at the DIA examined hundreds of photographs, discovered many of the chalk-on-paper "cartoons" Rivera drew in preparation for sketching the murals, and traveled to his native Mexico to learn more about the artist from people who had been his friends. These forays culminated in a retrospective exhibit of Rivera's work held at the DIA in 1986, one hundred years after he was born, and in the subsequent restoration of the murals and the courtyard they surround. This book provides narrative and visual documentation of the sequence of events that began with the commission to create the murals and ended with the restoration project.

Rivera's immense murals literally cover the walls of an enclosed courtyard at the DIA. Rendered in a style that reminds me of the very best of mid-twentieth century Communist poster art, the largest panels on the north and south walls depict aspects of the motor vehicle manufacturing process. Relatively smaller panels on these walls display human figures symbolizing the major races and geological strata, while even smaller panels show scenes illustrating other Detroit industries — weapons, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals. The paintings on the narrower east and west walls of the courtyard, which are transected by open entryways and marble columns, represent stages in the development of technology, starting with agriculture and culminating in the use of steam and electricity to facilitate travel by water and air.

Rivera's more familiar Mexican style is most evident in the agriculture paintings on the east wall, which depict rounded, brown-skinned nude females embracing equally rounded fruits and vegetables. A similar blocky style is evident in the paintings of the races that span the top of the north and south walls. All of the paintings that show aspects of industry and technology are colorful and detailed. The human figures appear to be deeply absorbed in their labors, while huge and accurately rendered machines dwarf and appear to dominate them. The book reveals that Rivera superimposed faces of many well-known people from the time onto characters in the paintings. For example, in the vaccination panel, which resembles a nativity scene, the nurse has the face of the actress Jean Harlow, the model for the physician was art historian William Valentiner (DIA director during the time Rivera painted the murals), and the child is based on Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., who was kidnapped in 1932.

From the book, I learned that Rivera was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party and began painting murals on buildings in Mexico in the 1920s with some of his compatriots. He was officially expelled from the Communist Party in 1929 when he decided to continue working on a government-supported mural project in Mexico City after the new president officially outlawed the Communist Party. In 1931, Rivera was in San Francisco, painting a mural in the Pacific Stock Exchange which used a style foreshadowing his work in Detroit. It was in San Francisco that he met Valentiner, who immediately saw the potential for Rivera to depict the industrial aspect of Detroit.

After a few months of discussion and negotiation, Rivera came to Detroit in July 1932 to begin work on the DIA murals, which took nine months to complete. His wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, accompanied him on the trip but does not appear to have played a direct role in the work. Financial support for this project came from Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford. At the time, the younger Ford was president of both the Ford Motor Company and the Detroit Arts Commission, thus making him a perfect patron for this project. Ford, a close friend of DIA Director Valentiner, met Rivera in April 1932 and discovered a mutual interest in industrial design that apparently led to the idea for the mural project. I find it terribly ironic that these murals, subsidized by one of the major industrial capitalists of the early 20th century, represent some of the finest work of a revolutionary Communist painter (you can leave the Party and still believe in the ideology). Just as ironic is their unabashed celebration of modern American industry and technology at the very nadir of the Great Depression.

The book includes a fine chapter on the actual process of making the murals. Rivera used the traditional fresco technique, which involves painting with water-based colors on damp plaster. The color literally bonds to the plaster as it dries. The method required considerable preparation of both surfaces and materials, and thus involved employment of a number of assistants with various skills, some of whom became models for faces in the paintings. The method also necessitated that Rivera concentrate on painting a section at a time, so that the plaster would not dry out. In addition, the method requires careful attention to color matching in adjacent sections, usually achieved by painting the sections on consecutive days until a whole panel is completed. Thus Rivera worked quite ceaselessly on the individual panels.

Although it was printed four years ago, this book is still quite readily available. My copy came from ABE, but it's also still listed on Amazon and on the DIA on-line gift store. It's chock full of well-crafted narrative, larded with carefully captioned color and black-and-white photos. The book includes endnotes, a bibliography, photo credits and an index, making it a useful reference work. The 11" X 27" color print of the north and south wall paintings tucked into the back pocket is an added bonus. Too bad it's printed on two sides and has fold creases!

[Donna Bird]