DIEGO RIVERA'S DETROIT
In 1933, critics called the giant Detroit murals "propaganga” and “grotesquerie." The artist called them his crowning achievement.
Mexican muralist Diego Rivera spent eleven months in Detroit during 1932 and 1933, commissioned by Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford, to paint a large-scale mural at the Institute of Arts. After months observing life at the River Rouge factories, the artist completed a 27-panel fresco that offered homage and critique to modern industry. Quickly, rumors of blasphemy spread through the city, stirring white-hot debate. The city council even called for the murals to be destroyed. DIA Director William Valentiner, in response, said this: “I am thoroughly convinced the day will come when Detroit will be proud to have this work in its midst.” Rivera meanwhile, leaving the city with Frida Kahlo, called the murals his greatest achievement. Below, a few examples of the spirited commentary.
October 23, 1932
From what is already on the walls, and form the sketches…the work in material, manner, and enormity is beyond the conception of the people outside the red drapes that cover the finished portions of the wall. When they see it, it will hit them like a bolt.
March 18, 1933
“[The murals are] coarse in conception…foolishly vulgar…without meaning for the intelligent observer….a slander to Detroit workingmen…un-American.”
DETROIT FREE PRESS
March 23, 1933
It is easy to understand the concern and disgust of members of Christian bodies over the grotesquerie and even blasphemy in the Diego Rivera murals…Undoubtedly they contain communist propaganda…The murals certainly cannot be taken seriously. But they might be kept as a historical curiosity – an example of the shallow thinking which was prevalent in this country.
ARTS COMMISSIONER ALBERT KAHN
March 27, 1933
There is nothing new in these attacks by churchmen. Michelangelo portrayed as devils the churchmen who tried to interfere with him when he was doing the Sistine Chapel. Rembrandt was just as guilty of charges of sacrilege as Rivera. But who throws stones at Rembrandt today?