ARTS & CULTURE

A Rare Look At How Diego Rivera Turned Sketches Into His Iconic Detroit Mural

03/23/2015 12:59 pm ET

A walk through the Detroit Institute of Arts’ first major exhibition since the city emerged from bankruptcy in December doesn't just offer a closer look at the museum's most famous piece; it gives visitors a chance to see the early stages of the artist's masterpiece.

The exhibition, “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” looks at the trajectories of the married Mexican artists before and after they arrived in the city in 1932; however, the exhibition directs most attention to the making of Rivera’s large-scale mural “Detroit Industry," a piece made up of 27 individual panels. The fresco cycle, commissioned by the museum and paid for by auto baron heir Edsel Ford, fills an airy central court at the museum.

“It’s like a secular Sistine [Chapel] ceiling,” Mark Rosenthal told The Huffington Post, comparing Rivera to Michelangelo and praising a near-unmatched ability to “compose fantastic narrative” in his paintings.

The mural, a celebration and subtle critique of modern industry, is sprawling in size and content, but every detailed inch contains symbolism of the city’s present, past and future. The exhibition takes a closer look at some of those details in their early form: Rivera’s large preparatory drawings, which served as drafts for the final murals, are on display for the first time since the 1980s. Placed alongside the panels they inspired, the exuberant charcoal sketches he called “cartoons” reveal how Rivera translated his broad strokes into the final scenes.

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Left: “The Making of a Motor,” Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal on paper, Leeds Museum and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery). © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: “Detroit Industry,” north wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rivera painted the mural over the course of seven months, panel by panel, standing on scaffolding to paint figures that towered over him. He finished the work in 1933. Much of the imagery in "Detroit Industry" was inspired by the Ford Rouge auto plant, where he spent weeks sketching.

In Rivera's as-told-to autobiography, My Art, My Life, he speaks of his delight in the machinery and its power to liberate man from drudgery and poverty.

“As I rode back to Detroit, a vision of Henry Ford's industrial empire kept passing before my eyes.” he said. “In my ears, I heard the wonderful symphony which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men's service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer with genius enough to give it communicable form. … I felt that in the society of the future as already, to some extent, that of the present, man-and-machine would be as important as air, water, and the light of the sun.”

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Left: “The Assembly of an Automobile,” Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal on paper, Leeds Museum and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery). © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: “Detroit Industry,” south wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rivera’s enthusiasm for an industry driven by capitalism can seem at odds with his politics. A dedicated Marxist, he arrived in Detroit as workers in the Ford plant were reeling. Several weeks earlier, layoffs had led to a march that ended in violence and five deaths. That politically-charged event, as well as a desperate workforce shrunk by the Great Depression, are scrubbed from the almost utopian view of the auto assembly line in “Detroit Industry.”

Still, Rivera depicts industrial progress in a more nuanced and critical light. He repeatedly represents both the constructive and destructive potential of modernization and technology. For example, two alternate panels show chemistry used to vaccinate a child and then used to build a bomb.

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Left: Preparatory Drawing for “Vaccination” (“Detroit Industry” north wall), Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal with red pigment over light charcoal. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: “Detroit Industry,” north wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts (vaccination). © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Left: Preparatory Drawing for “Manufacture of Poisonous Gas Bombs” (“Detroit Industry” north wall), Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: “Detroit Industry,” north wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts (poison gas bombs manufacture). © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The mural was originally intended to cover just a small section of the DIA court, but as Rivera mapped out the story, his vision grew to encompass wider themes and more wall space -- a total of more than 43,000 square feet. The museum agreed to the larger work, though Rivera gave Ford a discount of sorts.

“He moved from telling the story of building a car and the men who did it, to putting together components that talk about a number of dualities: the old and the new, the good and the bad, the organic and the inorganic, ... man against nature,” DIA Director Graham Beale said at a University of Michigan talk in 2012.

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Left: Preparatory Drawing for “Commercial Chemical Operations” (“Detroit Industry” south wall), Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal on paper. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: “Detroit Industry,” south wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts (commercial chemical operations). © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rivera would not be so subtle in his next commission, a mural for John Rockefeller Jr. The work was destroyed in 1934 after he painted in an image of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.

However, “Detroit Industry” was still controversial when it was completed, with some opposing the nude figures and others seeing challenges to religion and capitalism. At the time, a Detroit News editorial suggested that "the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work completely."

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Left: Preparatory Drawing for “Pharmaceutics” (“Detroit Industry” south wall), Diego Rivera, 1932, charcoal. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: “Detroit Industry,” south wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts (pharmaceutics). © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Fortunately, “Detroit Industry” didn’t suffer the same fate as the destroyed “Man at the Crossroads." Instead, it weathered the controversy and the ensuing ups and downs in the museum’s history, remaining a touchstone for Detroit’s cultural identity and a celebration of its foundations -- flaws and all.

Below, see more views of the "Detroit Industry" murals today and the pieces in the “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” exhibition, on display through July 12 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. See the museum's website for related programs about the artists and more info.

Diego Rivera's 'Detroit Industry' Mural
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