Detroit Industry Murals
The Detroit Industry Murals are a series of frescoes by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, consisting of twenty-seven panels depicting industry at the Ford Motor Company. Together they surround the Rivera Court in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Painted between 1932 and 1933, they were considered by Rivera to be his most successful work.
The two main panels on the North and South walls depict laborers working at Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant. Other panels depict advances made in various scientific fields, such as medicine and new technology. The series of murals, taken as a whole, represents the idea that all actions and ideas are one.
Even before the murals were made there had been controversy surrounding Rivera's Marxist philosophy. Critics viewed them as Marxist propaganda. When the murals were completed, the Detroit Institute for the Arts invited various clergymen to comment. Catholic and Episcopalian clergy condemned the murals for supposed blasphemy. The Detroit News protested that they were "vulgar" and "un-american." As a result of the controversy, 10,000 people visited the museum on a single Sunday, and the budget for it was eventually raised.
One panel on the North wall displays a Christ-like child figure with golden hair reminiscent of a halo. Flanking it on the right is a horse (rather than the donkey of Christian tradition); on the left is an ox. Directly below are several sheep, an animal often part of the traditional Nativity which in some cases is intended as a symbol of Christ as Agnus Dei. A doctor fills the role of Joseph and a nurse that of Mary; together they are administering the child a vaccination. In the background three scientists, like biblical Magi, are engaged in what appears to be a research experiment. This part of the fresco is clearly a modern take on traditional images of the holy family, but some critics interpret it as parody rather than homage.
At its unveiling the panel so offended some members of Detroit's religious community that they demanded it be destroyed, but commissioner Edsel Ford and DIA Director Wilhelm Valentiner held firm, and it remains in place today. During the reactionary McCarthy era of the 1950s, the DIA erected a sign above the entrance to the Rivera Court that read:
"Rivera's politics and his publicity seeking are detestable. But let's get the record straight on what he did here. He came from Mexico to Detroit, thought our mass production industries and our technology wonderful and very exciting, painted them as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. This came after the debunking twenties when our artists and writers found nothing worthwhile in America and worst of all in America was the Middle West.
Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city. If we are proud of this city's achievements, we should be proud of these paintings and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today.
Rivera depicts the workers as in harmony with their machines and highly productive. This view reflects both Karl Marx's begrudging admiration for the high productivity of capitalism and the wish of Edsel Ford, who funded the project, that the Ford motor plant be depicted favorably. Rivera depicted byproducts from the ovens being made into fertilizer and Henry Ford leading a trade-school engineering class.
- The Detroit Institute of Arts. "Detroit Industry". Accessed on 18 May 2013. "The Detroit Industry fresco cycle in Rivera Court is the finest example of Mexican muralist work in the United States; Rivera considered it the most successful work of his career."
- University of Michigan An Analysis of Diego Rivera's Exhibitions in the United States.
- Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America (1994), by Terry Smith.
- A high resolution panoramic view of the murals can be seen at Rivera Court by Synthescape.
- "Symbolism in Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals"