[graphic header] Detroit: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, National Park Service

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Between 1932 and 1933, artist Diego Rivera, a premier leader in the 1920s Mexican Mural Movement, executed one of the country's finest, modern monumental artworks devoted to industry.  Often considered to be the most complex artworks devoted to American Industry, the Detroit Industry mural cycle depicts the city's manufacturing base and labor force on all four walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts Garden Court, since renamed the Diego Court. Rivera's technique for painting frescoes, his portrayal of American life on public buildings, and the 1920s Mexican Mural Movement itself directly led to and influenced the New Deal mural programs of the 1930s and 1940s.

Diego at work on a Mural

Diego Rivera at work at the Detroit Institute of Arts
Photograph courtesy of the Detroit News

A finished mural

Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry Murals
Photo courtesy of ashleystreet via Flickr, permission through Creative Commons

In 1931, Rivera met William R. Valeinteer, the Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. They discussed Detroit and the history of its industrial development. The Institute's Art Commission approved a proposal to have Rivera paint murals representing Detroit's growing automobile industry. The Ford Company was hoping to restore its image after workers at Ford's River Rouge complex launched a hunger strike when faced with an oppressive work environment intended to increase production.

Between April and July of 1932, Rivera toured and sketched Ford's River Rouge plant and other industrial sites. Rivera intended to focus on the marvel of the modernistic and high-tech River Rouge complex and its impact on workers. In the murals, he captured the technology of the Rouge and the condensation of the general flow of manufacture and transportation that governed the entire factory. He also focused on the struggle the workers faced on a daily basis trying to perform their repetitive tasks each day.

Rivera's murals consist of 27 panels spanning four walls. The panels depict industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit and stress the relationship between man and machine and the continuous development of life. Technology is portrayed in both its constructive and destructive uses, along with the relationship between North and South Americans, management and labor, and the cosmic and technological. The east and west walls depict the development of technology and the north and south walls show a representation of the four races, the automobile industry, and the secondary industries of Detroit-medicine, drugs, gas bomb production, and commercial chemicals

After he finished the murals and before they were unveiled, negative press began to emerge. A front-page Detroit News editorial called the murals un-American and foolishly vulgar. The article stated that the work bore no relation to the soul of the community, to the room, to the building, or to the general purpose of Detroit's Institute of Arts. It also claimed that the murals were not a fair picture of the man who works short hours, must be quick in action, alert of mind, who works in a factory where there is plenty of movement. Some clergy were distraught over the vaccination panel. In response and for publicity, the museum set up a press conference with clergy and the media. It broke in the Detroit papers, and within 10 days was all over the world. Supporters of the murals struck back against the negative media coverage. In a surge of enthusiasm for the murals, organizations and others circulated and signed petitions. Beyond the City of Detroit, the controversy extended to the national art community. Despite the controversy, the Arts Commission unanimously voted to accept the murals.

Visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts can walk through the Diego Court and see these remarkable, historic murals in person. The museum offers a multimedia tour of the murals, available in Spanish and English, and guided tours of the museum.

Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals are located in the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI. The Institute is open from Tuesday to Thursday from 9:00am to 4:00pm, Friday from 9:00am to 10:00pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 10:00am to 5:00pm. The Institute is closed on Monday. For more information, visit the Detroit Institute of Arts website or call 313-833-7900.

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