Detroit Institute of Art
The Detroit Museum of Art houses a fantastic collection – wide-ranging and with emphasis on American painting – but probably the most known are the monumental murals painted in 1932 and 1933 by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Dominated by the two largest frescoes on the north and south walls depicting employees at the Ford assembly plant, the Detroit Industry Murals pose many questions about the benefits and disadvantages of technology – specifically in relation to the worker – and the related advances in science and medicine.
Painted at the time when automation was being applied to the assembly lines in the factories of the area, many of the frescoes examine the dehumanizing effects of the replacement of skilled craft work by repetitive tasks, in which engagement with the work being performed and responsibility for production is lost for the sake of increased output. While by all accounts Rivera marveled at the capabilities of new technologies to output flawless products in a fraction of the time and his beliefs that the application of many of these technologies could ease physical burden for the worker, he was deeply concerned that the obsolescence of the skilled laborer would directly result mass unemployment and in reduced quality of life for those workers not replaced by the new efficient machines. Related to the themes of increased mechanization of labor and the laborer was the deepening division between management and the worker as external control and supervision replaced autonomy, knowledge and power were concentrated, and wages stagnated, causing protests and strikes that resulted in multiple deaths.
Rivera surrounded the two largest murals of the Ford plant with related frescoes juxtaposing the benefits of pharmaceuticals in saving human life with their potential application in chemical warfare; an examination of the loss of traditional culture and its emphasis on the importance of life – depicted in the frescoes of Aztec goddesses and the scenes of cornucopia and fecundity – as a result of the rise of technology as a guiding force in the modern world; and the recognition of the provision of raw materials by the earth and the contribution of the all the human races in the creation of civilization as opposed to giving singular credit to the developer of technology, in addition to multiple other themes. Less pronounced due to the mural project being sponsored by Edsel Ford were questions of the suitability of capitalism in addressing workers’ best interests.
I enjoyed many other works in the collection at Detroit, though I was unable to see the complete collection; highlights for me included the wood collage done by Ashinaabe artist George Morrison, an Egyptian-Roman funerary portrait, a 19th century carved box from the Tlingit culture, and the fantastic painting of the biblical Judith by Artemesia Gentileschi. I was also fortunate enough to visit during the joint Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo exhibit that examined his creation of the Industry Murals, their time together in Detroit, and Kahlo’s personal development as an artist amidst personal tragedy. No photography was permitted in the exhibition which is unfortunate as it brought together many of Kahlo’s lesser known works to create a more complete narrative regarding her anxious elation with her pregnancy, her devastation at its loss, and the emergence of her identity as an embodiment of Mexican culture and heritage. In addition, seen side by side, the contrast between monumental size of Rivera’s work and his concern with humanity as a whole compared with Kahlo’s smaller canvases and detailed composition which deal with personal themes and a concern for life on an individual scale could be readily absorbed. The exhibition also did a fantastic job of showing Rivera’s development of a measured admiration for the benefits of technology versus Kahlo’s retreat from faith in medicine and industrial solutions during their 8 months of exposure to the manufacturing environment of Detroit.