Thursday, July 16, 2015

Motown Review: Post-Conclusion Reflections on 'Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit' -- Art Exhibition Review

Art Exhibit Review

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit
Detroit Institute of Arts
March 15-July 12, 2015
Exhibit seen July 9; now ended

Last week, I took a brief road trip from Chicago to Detroit, motivated primarily by the opportunity to see The Rolling Stones at Comerica Park, home of the Tigers.

The Stones were great--see my review here--but I also enjoyed the rest of my 24 or so hours in Detroit and its environs.

Having been there multiple times before, this didn't surprise me, as despite being much maligned, I have always found the city well-worth visiting--as I wrote in this Detroit travel guide--in large part due to a fine collection of museums.

The Henry Ford (in suburban Dearborn), Motown Museum and Detroit Institute of Arts are among my favorites anywhere, and in addition to the DIA, on this trip I valued my first visit to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. I one day also wish to check out the Detroit Historical Museum and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, as well as the University of Michigan Museum of Art in nearby Ann Arbor. 

And though the vast construction posed some logistical challenges, it was nice to see advancements being made in the downtown area of a city that declared bankruptcy in 2013, with a new 3.3-mile streetcar along Woodward Ave. aimed to open next year and bringing new housing developments with it.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-33
Having visited the Detroit Institute of Arts on a number of previous occasions, I was familiar with its outstanding collection spanning numerous genres--including two of the best Van Goghs I've seen anywhere--as well as its excellent explanatory displays that aid patrons in understanding selected artworks and artists.

I had also repeatedly seen the museum's centerpiece, Rivera Court, on whose four walls the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted a tribute--but being a Marxist and humanitarian, also a rebuke of certain practices--to the booming industry that was taking place in Detroit, albeit slowing as the Great Depression took hold.

Rivera, by then a world-famous muralist who had also been part of Parisian art circles with Picasso, Braque, Modigliani and others, arrived in Detroit in April 1932 at the behest of Edsel Ford, president of the Ford Motor Co. and son of its founder, Henry Ford.

Accompanied by his then little-known wife, Frida Kahlo, Rivera created the Detroit Industry Murals, meticulously depicting life on an automotive assembly line, but also highlighting pharmaceutical, chemical and other manufacturing prevalent in Detroit.

Just a month prior to Rivera's arrival, a hunger march of unemployed Ford workers, culminating at Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn, resulted in 5 marchers being killed and dozens more injured, in what became known as the Ford Massacre.

So within his factory scenes saluting line workers, Rivera also mocked tyrannical, insensitive executives and made some sly indictments of American industrialism and greed.

For great insights on the murals, their overt & covert messages and the importance of the black & white filmstrip-like "predella" panels, I highly recommend this terrific blog article by my friend Mark Vallen, himself a gifted artist simpatico with Rivera's social realism and renderings of societal injustices merged with a sense of dignity and hope.

Personal illuminations from Mark also helped me better appreciate the numerous Diego Rivera murals--and those of contemporaries like David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco--I saw in Mexico City on my trip there in January.

Frida Kahlo, Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931
In Mexico City, I also visited the Frida Kahlo Museum at La Casa Azul, the bright blue home where she grew up and then lived with Rivera for many years after their 1929 wedding.

There, and also at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, I saw several canvases painted by both artists, and just a few weeks ago was delighted to note one of Kahlo's riveting self-portraits included in a wonderful--and ongoing--modern art exhibition in Milwaukee, of works from Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Thus, while I don't know that I would have made a special trip just for it--unlike Vallen, who was inspired to fly to Detroit from his L.A. home back in May--I was quite pleased that a trek to see the Stones enabled complementary satisfaction to be found in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit just days before it closed.

I'm glad I bought a time-slotted ticket days in advance, and though the Woodward Ave. construction mess and some confusion finding the DIA parking lot caused me to be half-hour tardy for my 9:30am entry, I was allowed in without issue.

Understandably, as many of the works are on loan--the exhibition covered not only the couple's brief time in Detroit, but their life and work before and after--photography in the exhibit was not allowed. But in utilizing the free Audio Guide and taking copious notes so I could write this piece, I spent about 2 hours in the exhibition, followed by a long look at the murals themselves and a traipse through several other galleries.

Diego Rivera, Pharmaceuticals, Vaccination and Automotive Assembly
sketches for the Detroit Industry Murals, with actual mural versions also shown
I'm glad I got to see the Diego/Frida show, especially for the way it abetted my appreciation of Rivera's murals in Detroit and Mexico City.

Though I'd assumed that Rivera's art must have involved considerable planning and prep work, his murals are so bursting with human and other subjects--and especially given what I saw at Mexico City's Secretaria de Educacion Publica, so vast and voluminous--I figured much of the astonishing art must have resulted from Diego's ample gut instinct.

But the large mural sketches included in the Detroit exhibition reveal just how meticulously planned every inch of the murals were, to the point that assistants had traced Rivera's sketches onto the walls as guides for his painting.

Still, you can see that the final results weren't always exact to the sketches (at least not the largest one included in the exhibition).

At face value, or simply as a cost/value proposition, the Diego and Frida exhibit was well-worth my time and $14--which included general museum admission--and presumably that of anyone who took it in over its 4 months.

To my awareness, there are no Frida Kahlo works on public display in the otherwise art-rich city of Chicago, and seemingly only two relatively minor, not-particularly-emblematic paintings by Diego Rivera at the Art Institute.

Diego Rivera, Flower Festival, 1925 and The Flowered Canoe, 1931
So although the Detroit exhibit had relatively few true masterpieces for such a high profile exhibition--and excepting the mural sketches, most of those were from before and after the artists' residency in the Motor City--works like Rivera's Flower Festival, The Flowered Canoe and his 1949 Portrait of Ruth Rivera (his daughter from a previous marriage) were pleasures to see, along with about five genuine Kahlo gems and some revelatory early works.

While the show provided some illuminating insights about both Diego and Frida, it was a bit lacking in the way of biographical depth, about either artist's life, work, beliefs, etc.--particularly preceding Detroit--and didn't really paint much of a picture about how either spent their time in the city outside of Rivera's work at the DIA.

Frida Kahlo, The Accident, 1926 and Henry Ford Hospital, 1932
Familiar to those who have seen the movie Frida, two tragic incidents in Kahlo's life were reflected in key pieces.

The 1925 bus accident that resulted in devastating injuries and lifelong pain was chronicled in a pencil drawing the next year, and the miscarriage that occurred when she and Diego were in Detroit not only prompted the harrowing Henry Ford Hospital painting that shows her on a bloodstained on a bed surrounded by images of a fetus, pelvic bone, medical model and more, but provoked her famed oeuvre of self-portraits chronicling her psyche and often pain.

Quoted in a video stating...

"Diego does pretty well, but it is I who am the big artist."

...Kahlo indeed seems to retain a much higher U.S. profile than her husband and, among many, greater artistic reverence.

Thus it is unarguably noteworthy that the sad circumstances in Detroit essentially begat her distinct style and hallowed career.

Yet without meaning this to be too critical, simply observational about the tenor of the audio guide and gallery text, insights into Frida Kahlo's time in Detroit could largely be summed up as:
Arrived with her more famous husband while pregnant, worried about the viability of her pregnancy due to her past injuries, wound up miscarrying and subsequently made herself the compelling, near-constant subject of her art in ways that were uniquely personal and often agonizing.
Frida Kahlo, Suicide of Dorothy Hale, 1940
Anything substantially more about Frida, her paintings, persona and perspectives was largely beyond the scope of the exhibition, although the inclusion of her 1940 Suicide of Dorothy Hale--a rare non-self portrait--illustrated the empathy Kahlo had for other women, in this case a New York socialite who like herself, was subjected to much press scrutiny in part due to her striking appearance.

Although Rivera would paint many more spectacular murals and canvases after Detroit--he would die in 1957 at age 70, three years after Kahlo passed at 47--he himself noted the Detroit Industry Murals as the apex of his career.

Especially because it made for one of the more poignant pieces of both art and information in exhibit, it is worth noting that after Kahlo's miscarriage, Rivera added an image of an infant in the bulb of a plant to the east wall of the mural, with a large sketch of such included in the exhibition.

Diego's next commission was famously in New York, where Nelson Rockefeller enlisted him to paint Man at the Crossroads in Rockefeller Center, only to soon have it destroyed due to Rivera having included a portrait of Lenin that he refused to remove.

Rivera would recreate the mural--retitled Man, Controller of the Universe--at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where I had the pleasure of seeing it in January.

Diego Rivera, Baby in Bulb excerpt from Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-33
While he would remain quite prolific and productive, including creating the mammoth Pan American Unity mural in San Francisco in 1940--one of 3 in that city--and his last mural within Mexico's City National Palace (which I sadly didn't get to see due to a temporary security closure) in 1951, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit intimates that he pulled back on the overt politicism in his work following the Rockefeller episode. 

Per this fine timeline provided by the Detroit News--nothing so detailed was included in the exhibit--Rivera finished the Detroit Industry Murals in March 1933.

They stand as an astonishing artistic achievement, and--amplified by the people of Detroit instantly championing Rivera's work in the face of some conservative backlash--also as one of the most heroic examples of art as social activism. (I couldn't help ask if it may have inspired another such example, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, but a docent didn't know; I'll look into this a bit more.)

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940
I wish there was a bit more focus on this aspect of Rivera--and Kahlo--in the exhibit, especially in a 21st century world where Detroit, and the proletariat worldwide, have suffered through hard times while billionaires become ever richer.

While I feel wealthier to have witnessed Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, the truth is nothing contained within was as amazing as the murals themselves.

So even though I have written this lengthy review after the exhibition has ended, I still suggest Detroit demands a visit from any art lover, in part to witness the brilliant legacy Diego Rivera left behind for eternity, and to pay homage to what Frida Kahlo took forth from her traumatic time in Motown.

I did not purchase one, but the catalogue for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is available online through the DIA shop.

Diego Rivera, Self-Portrait, 1930 and Nude With Beads (Frida Kahlo), 1930. Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkey, 1945.

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