30 April 2015

Carole Rothman: An Interview

[Carole Rothman is co-founder and artistic director of Second Stage Theatre.  In March 1987, on the eve of the company’s Broadway début with Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances at Circle in the Square (4 March 1987), I interviewed her about her work.  I was accompanied on the interview by Geoffrey Shlaes, artistic director of the American Directors Institute, the organization (now defunct) that published Directors Notes, the newsletter I edited.  This interview, a condensation of the full session, was originally published in the Spring Issue (vol. 1, no. 4) of Directors Notes in 1987.

[According to its own website, Second Stage was founded in 1979 to produce “second stagings” of contemporary American plays that deserved to reach a wider audience.  The company soon expanded this mission to produce new plays by a developing corps of writers.  Over time, the troupe’s dedication to telling essential American stories in their most exciting forms has come to include genre-bending solo performances, cutting-edge theatrical events, explosive new musicals, and world and New York premieres by America’s most esteemed playwrights.

[On 20 April, the New York Times reported that Second Stage had negotiated the purchase of the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway, to be the sixth Broadway house owned or operated by a nonprofit organization.  This advance in the company’s status has impelled me to republish this interview from 28 years ago, when the Off-Broadway troupe had just made its Broadway début.]

Rick:  To start out: I did enjoy the show [Coastal Disturbances at Circle in the Square, directed by Rothman], but I didn’t see the earlier [Off-Broadway] incarnation [at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre, opening 19 November 1986].  Were there many changes?

Rothman:  Well, it was totally restaged for the “Sausage in the Square” [and] we changed part of the set.  At The Second Stage there was a turntable for the lifeguard stand, but it turned on itself.  This time, the lifeguard stand moves so it changes the shape of the space.  That was the original concept of the piece anyway: to really emphasize the perspective you get at a beach.

Rick:  You’ve had something of a relationship with Tina Howe.  How did that begin?

Rothman:  Tina came to see [Wendy Wasserstein’s] My Sister in This House [Park Royal Theatre, opening on 18 November 1981] which I had directed at the end.  She decided she really wanted me to direct [Painting Churches].  Then she had asked me before Painting Churches even opened if I would direct her next show.  I think Tina had been a little battered before.  She hadn’t had great experiences with directors and my way of working doesn’t necessarily fit into someone who’s wary of working with directors because I don’t allow the playwright to come during the first week of rehearsal.  Tina and I both like to go into rehearsal with a script that we feel is ready to go.

We talked a lot about the play before I went into rehearsal, and we talked every night after rehearsal.  I had a vision of the play and a concept that was my own, but I think that it meshed perfectly with what Tina wanted.

[Then] she showed [Coastal Disturbances] to me, and I saw a focus problem and a couple of other problems and she went back and rewrote it.

Shlaes:  Did any of the visual things start to come into your head at this point?

Rothman:  Yes, you know.  Tina would sometimes call me and say, “Can we do a scene where there’s a little airplane that flies across with sky-writing?”  And I’d say, “No.”  (Laughter)

She also knew that she was writing it for The Second Stage—she knew what her limitations were.  Certain stage things like, “Could we have people walk along the beach?” and “Could we see the scenery go by?”  And I said, “No.  You don’t want tricks.”

So when I got the script, it called for scene[s] in the water and all over the place—not a really good sense of flow: morning, afternoon, rainy says—everything . . . .  How was I going to deal with this script that called for all these different elements?  I came up with the idea of a turntable then the rest was easy: rehearsals were a breeze, the script had a first reading that was a dream, and the run-throughs were really wonderful.  [The set for Coastal Disturbances was designed by Tony Straiges.]

We went to the first preview—and hit disaster.  The play wasn’t working for the audience.  We [had] to make big changes during previews.  It hadn’t happened to us [before].

Rick:  How many previews did you have ahead of you?

Rothman:  We were not about to open that play until it was ready, so we previewed the play for four weeks.  It was one of those situations where you’re rehearsing a scene in the afternoon that’s going to go in two nights later.  That night you perform the old scene: you’re teching the new stuff.

Rick:  What kind of changes were you talking about?

Rothman:  We cut about twenty minutes out of it.  There were six scenes in the first act; there are now five scenes.  We put two of the scenes together—which cut out the water scene so information from that scene had to  go into another scene.  The third scene of the play was originally between  just Ariel [Joanne Camp] and Faith [Heather MacRae], and I said, “No, we’ve got to put Holly into it.”  The scene with [Holly’s] boyfriend, Andre [Ronald Guttman], got worked on right up until the last minute.  That’s the one scene that still has problems.

Shlaes:  I thought it was the major accomplishment of the piece that after all the words and ideas got out, I was left with characters and also an atmosphere of the place.

Rothman:  I don’t really want to toot my horn too much, but my major accomplishment was that I had a wonderful cast.  And I was able to do it without stars.  It was so much more fulfilling to me to be able to have Annette Bening [come] in just through auditions.  I’m really proud of that.  [Bening, who won a Tony for her role, made her stage début as Holly Dancer.  Also starring was Timothy Daly as Leo Hart]

Rick:  So Circle really didn’t put any impediments in your way to moving [Coastal Disturbances]?

Rothman:  I think that they got a kick out of having us around—there’s never been a woman director at the Circle in the Square.  When I got my contract, it was all typed in: “He will do this.”

Shlaes:  You’ve altered the course of your company now to both second productions and first productions.

Rothman:  Eight years ago, Robyn [Goodman, my partner] and I found that plays were falling between the cracks and need[ed] a second production.  What has happened over the years is that there have been fewer and fewer places for new okays to be done.  A lot of theaters are doing [second productions] now.  [Goodman and Rothman were co-artistic directors of Second Stage from 1979, when they founded the company, to 2013, when Goodman left to become an independent producer and, ultimately, producer of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Underground program for new work of emerging writers and directors.]

But the original reason we changed [was] you develop a working relationship with a playwright and if you say, “Take your play somewhere else and have it not do well, and then bring it here,” that was ludicrous.  (Laughter).  Then we got this play by Deborah Eisenberg, Pastorale, which was our first new play, and really liked it.  [Second Stage’s Pastorale opened at the Park Royal Theatre on 4 April 1982.]  We did our next new play, Painting Churches, because Tina came and said, “I want you to do this play.”  [Painting Churches opened at the South Street Theatre on 8 February 1983.  I saw a revival by the Keen Company; my report was posted on ROT on 14 April 2012.]

Shlaes:  Your reputation above the choices that you’ve made has been the quality of your product and the kinds of people that you’ve been working with.

Rothman:  It has to do with Robyn being an actress and me being a director.  Robyn has always maintained that this place has got to be a place where actors enjoy working.  Added to that is that I’m a very good problem-solver for other people’s work.  I don’t think that I’m ever really a threat to a director working here.  My responsibility is to point out where the problems may lie.

Rick:  [Robyn] spoke at the Drama Desk forum about artistic-director burnout.  The source of the burnout problem was that they are running the theater all by themselves.  You and she share this load so equitably that [burnout’s] not likely to be a problem.

Rothman:   Absolutely.  Some theaters have an executive director, but their responsibilities are separate.  Robyn and I share the artistic burden, so it’s much, much easier.

Shlaes:  It seems that what the two of you also share is affection, which would make the running of the theater a task that you would look forward to every day.

Rothman:  Oh, absolutely.  That’s why people get married (laughing).  It also is quite frankly why we can maintain relationships outside of the theater.  We pretty much go over the agonies of the day-to-day running of the theater here, and we can go home and have lives.

Shlaes:  It’s a pleasure to meet you.  You’ve made some wonderful comments about directing and about people and about work—things that I have long held true.

[Over the seasons, Second Stage has presented some important productions, including This is Our Youth (1998), Metamorphoses (2001), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), The Little Dog Laughed (2006), and Next to Normal (2008).  The company’s revivals have also been New York theater high points, many of them restoring interest in plays forgotten or overlooked—as much for the selections of producible material as for the excellence of the stage work and casting.]

25 April 2015

"Presidents at the Theater"

by Rebecca Ritzel

[Now seems an auspicious moment to republish the article below, “Presidents at the Theater.”  Last Tuesday, 14 April, was the 150th anniversary of the night that Pres. Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre by actor John Wilkes Booth.  (Lincoln died in the house across Northwest 10th Street early the next morning.)  Fortunately for us, not to mention theatergoing presidents, sudden death has not commonly been the final act of attendance at a play (though some few may have felt like it was).  The impetus for this Washington Post feature on presidents who went to the theater was the visit of former Pres. Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to Washington’s Arena Stage for a performance of the new play by Lawrence Wright, Camp David, about his hosting the historic peace conference with Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Pres. Anwar Sadat in 1978.  (I’ve also appended another brief report on the Carters’ visit to the theater and the review of the play, just to complete the record.)

[This article was published in the Washington Post’s “Style” section on Wednesday, 2 April 2014.]

Backstage: Jimmy Carter, a longtime theater fan, to attend world premiere of ‘Camp David’

Thursday night in Southwest Washington, former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, will file through security checks and take their seats at Arena Stage for the red-carpet world premiere of a new play, “Camp David.” For Washingtonians who have become accustomed to presidential theatergoing amounting to the Kennedy Center Honors and an occasional date night in New York, seeing a president at a local theater may come as something of a shock.

But those who remember the Carter administration will smile knowingly and nod. Of course President Carter is going to Arena Stage. President Carter was a theater guy. He wouldn’t miss this premiere for the world, although maybe for world peace.

Although he was in office for just four years, Carter holds the record for the most trips to the Kennedy Center by a sitting president, with 28. He remains the only president to ever attend a play by Eugene O’Neill, and his idea of entertaining foreign dignitaries was inviting everyone from opera star Beverly Sills to a children’s theater troupe to come sing show tunes at the White House.

“Carter is easily in the top six or seven of the theatergoing presidents,” said Thomas A. Bogar, a retired history professor based in Silver Spring who wrote the 2006 book “American Presidents Attend the Theatre.”

Not since Woodrow Wilson had an American president gone to the theater so regularly — once a month his first year in office.

“Carter, compared to many other presidents, went to the theater more for genuine appreciation and intellectual stimulation,” Bogar said. “He had eclectic taste, and such a wide appreciation for all the different genres of theater.”

Less than a month after the Carters moved to Washington, the peanut-farmer-in-chief made a spur-of-the-moment decision to catch “Madame Butterfly” at the Kennedy Center one day after church. He caused a commotion when he and Rosalynn showed up in the presidential box with their pastor, daughter Amy and several other friends in tow. They stayed for all three hours and headed backstage afterward.

By contrast, Gerald Ford’s last operatic outing ended with the president and his entourage leaving the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “La Boheme” at intermission. Carter’s enthusiasm caught the press corps off guard, but soon photographers realized they were tailing a president who relished a weekend matinee or a night on the town.

As he did research, Bogar exchanged letters with Carter several times. “I am usually overwhelmed by a great performance,” Carter wrote in one note to Bogar, “and I consider it an honor to meet the artists.”

Carter made a point of seeing nearly every pre-Broadway tryout that came through Washington, and the District’s theaters hosted several during his term. Of the musical “Annie,” Carter said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be completely successful.” But his taste ran the gamut, and when he went backstage to meet John Lithgow after a performance of O’Neill’s drama “Anna Christie,” the president informed the actor he had read the script in advance and accused Lithgow of ad-libbing a peanut joke.

Liv Ullmann, Lithgow’s co-star, was one of many actors who was invited to the White House after receiving a backstage handshake. Another was the British actor Ian McKellen, who came to Washington as the star of a pre-Broadway tuneup for Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” The dark comedy about Mozart and his rival Antonio Salieri was the first show the Carters saw after he lost the election to Ronald Reagan, an actor who wouldn’t venture out to the theater nearly as often.

McKellen said Carter’s loss cast a pall over the production, which began previews at the National Theatre on election night. “Washington was rather distraught,” the actor said. (McKellen shared this story with The Washington Post in January, after he recorded voice-overs for the Olney Theatre’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”)

Carter “came backstage afterwards, and he asked me if I thought ‘Amadeus’ would be suitable for his young daughter, and I said, ‘I don’t know, you should judge that, but I think people should go to the theater at as early an age as possible,’ ” McKellen recalled. Amy Carter, 13 at the time, came a few nights later and enjoyed the show. McKellen was then invited to the White House, along with his friend Angela Lansbury, who was in town starring as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”

“So the two of us had the tour. It didn’t end in the Oval Office — it began in the Oval Office, and then it went to even more special places,” McKellen said. The president did “his work in a little office down the corridor. It had a real log fire burning, and a view of the Washington Monument. . . . He had three books on his desk: one was the Bible, one was a biography of the current pope, and one was collected poetry of Dylan Thomas.”

Carter’s visit to Arena Stage to see “Camp David” will be a first by any president. Other local theaters, including Ford’s and Shakespeare, have hosted presidents in the past, and one possible — yet unconfirmed — explanation is that before the renovation, Arena Stage had too many entrances to be properly secured. The new play by Lawrence Wright stars Richard Thomas as Carter, Hallie Foote as Rosalynn and Ron Rifkin as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

“It is going to be interesting what Carter’s perception of Richard Thomas is. The resemblance is so striking, the youth and the energy is there,” Bogar said.

One critical matter that’s far easier to speculate on: that Carter will probably want to meet the actors, because of all recent presidents, Bogar says, it is Carter who best understands the very fine line between acting as a president and playing the role of commander in chief on the world’s stage.

[Ritzel is a freelance writer.

[Camp David by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Molly Smith. Through May 4 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets, $75-$120.]

*  *  *  *
by Liz Seymour

[This article was posted on the Washington Post's website on 4 April 2014; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/reliable-source/wp/2014/04/04/jimmy-carters-emotional-night-at-camp-david.]

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in Camp David at Arena Stage. (Photo by Teresa Wood)
Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in Camp David at Arena Stage. (Photo by Teresa Wood)
It doesn’t happen every day — not even when you’re a former president. But from Row F at the Arena Stage Thursday evening and in the midst of a star-studded Washington crowd, former President Jimmy Carter was given a rare glimpse of himself and his presidency during the premier of “Camp David.”

The new play revisits the 13 days of negotiations in 1978 that led to an accord between Egypt and Israel. But it was the first time a president and his wife came to the Arena, said Molly Smith, the theater’s artistic director and the play’s director. Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, watched themselves portrayed on stage as two of the four main characters. Journalists and politicians, including Andrea Mitchell, Bob Schieffer, Chris Matthews, Judy Woodruff, Nancy Pelosi and former Congressman Dan Glickman flooded the audience.

When the 90-minute performance ended and the cast received a standing ovation, the Carters did too. Then they were escorted to the stage to embrace the actors (Richard Thomas of the Waltons and Hallie Foote) who played them. All four became emotional on stage. Earlier the former president and his wife were feted at a dinner of rack of lamb and lemon meringue tart in Arena’s smaller Kogod Cradle stage.

[While not a presidential playgoer, another contemporary figure of prominence is the subject of a production at Arena this season.  Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia is the main character in John Strand’s The Originalist, which opened in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena on 6 March and is scheduled to close on 31 May.  Washington’s splendid actor Edward Gero (see my reports on Amadeus, 6 July 2011, and Red, 4 March 2012) portrays Scalia, who never committed to going to see the performance.  I know of no report that he has to date.]

*  *  *  *
by Peter Marks

In one of the best scenes of “Camp David,” the alternately talky and affecting new play at Arena Stage about the 13 grueling days of negotiations that led to the Middle East’s most durable peace treaty, President Jimmy Carter takes Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin on a class trip of sorts to Gettysburg, Pa.

At the site of one of America’s bloodiest battles — and Abraham Lincoln’s greatest speeches — the three leaders at last can focus on something other than their rote, self-serving agendas. It’s on this field of grief and carnage that these men who’ve known war become reflective about suffering and what they’ve learned from it. And as Begin starts to speak the words of the Gettysburg Address, and Carter joins in, and then Sadat, you can be excused for choking up at the kumbaya affirmativeness of the interlude — the emotion released at watching these figures grope their way to common ground.

Lawrence Wright’s play, receiving its world premiere at Arena’s Kreeger Theater under Molly Smith’s direction, is engrossing at these moments, because it’s not just reciting history or framing the debate; it’s also showing us how to understand why intractable adversaries might have lowered their guards, gazed at their bitterest enemy and begun to conceive of a way forward.

It’s also the sort of illuminating scene the play needs more of. Because when “Camp David” is chronicling the agonizing, two-steps-forward-one-step-back pace of geopolitical dealmaking, the drama tends to mirror actual events too authentically. It becomes a slog. And in its meticulous effort to reveal the singular achievement of those 13 days, it aspires to be more than that.

The characters with all the speaking roles in “Camp David” are the major players in the events of September 1978, when an American president went to the extraordinary length of sequestering himself with two intransigent leaders in the mountains of Maryland, with the intention of working out the details of peace, man to man to man. The actors form an impressive roll call: Richard Thomas is Carter, Ron Rifkin plays Begin, Egyptian film star Khaled Nabawy portrays Sadat and Hallie Foote is Carter’s first lady, Rosalynn.

Wright, a widely traveled, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has created for them identities that are limited in the personality department. You sense the actors’ struggle — especially in the cases of Thomas and Foote — to project something more complex about these world-class newsmakers than the one admirable attribute propelling the evening, namely their desire to bring tranquil security to the Holy Land. Perhaps some of the apparent tightness onstage had to do with the fact that on this night, the audience included the Carters, along with a slew of other well-known Washington faces, onetime Carter aides and current members of Congress and TV journalists. It can’t be relaxing, practicing that Jimmy Carter high-beam smile for Jimmy Carter. In any event, this worthwhile play cries out for some shift in its priorities. It needs to become a bit more about the people and less about the process.

You crave more, too, for Rifkin and Nabawy to chew on, for Wright to loosen his strong journalistic grip on the material, to give us more of the dramatist’s poetic view and less evidence of the astute researcher. Both actors are very good at embodying the wiliness and steel of politicians callused by suspicion and the anxiety that blinking first might hold dire consequences, but also the worry that failing to seize the moment might be just as dangerous. Smith seems content here to rely on the actors’ considerable charisma to carry the story, and that works, up to a point. Rifkin expertly calls up Begin’s stoic resolve, while Nabawy impressively summons Sadat’s canny bonhomie. Even in these private talks, however, we see little of anything but the public men. (Giving them no confidantes other than the Carters — both had entourages at Camp David — proves theatrically constricting.)

The images of these leaders, engaged in a civil battle of wills amid the trees and cabins of Walt Spangler’s rustic set, reinforce one of the more hopeful takeaways from the play: that government can be a mechanism for good. In its references to Palestinian autonomy, Jewish settlements in lands Israel conquered in the 1967 war and Israel’s quest to dwell within safe borders, the play reminds us that the world still lives with issues left unresolved at Camp David. But unlike, say, the relentlessly negative view of Washington spread by the hit Netflix series “House of Cards,” this play suggests that it’s possible in American politics to want to do something other than help oneself.

The play’s biggest problem is turning that impulse into a consistently lively 100 minutes or so of exposition. The progress of these delicate negotiations would, of course, have to be frustratingly stop and start. Still, the scenes in which Begin and Sadat are seated in patio chairs, asserting and reasserting their countries’ grievan­ces and demands, while the referee president coaxes and cajoles, become a little monotonous. It’s not only the combatants who are relieved when Foote’s Rosalynn materializes amusingly from her cabin at just the right moment with a tea service and encouraging words.

Rosalynn makes so clear she doesn’t want to intrude that we become aware of a slyly opposite intent: Her genteel attentions are part of the diplomatic ballet. If anything, more of Rosalynn is needed in the play, and not just as sympathetic ear for her idealistic, spiritual husband, who addresses God directly, asking for guidance, much in the way Tevye pleads with his maker in “Fiddler on the Roof.” It’s a device that reinforces an antique dimension to the storytelling. And it isn’t balanced nearly enough with a sense of what resources (beside religion) Carter called on to compel Begin and Sadat to remain open to a breakthrough.

As detailed here, the president’s final desperate assault on Begin’s conscience to win an agreement — if a consciously manipulative act is what it was — comes across as so ambiguous that it registers more as a sentimental gesture than a stroke of genius. Historically accurate the depiction may be, but like too many other instances in “Camp David,” it misses an opportunity to exploit dramatic potential to the fullest.

[Camp David by Lawrence Wright, directed by Molly Smith. Set, Walt Spangler; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Pat Collins; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem; projections, Jeff Sugg; wigs, Chuck LaPointe. With Will Beckstrom and Will Hayes. About 1 hour 45 minutes.]

20 April 2015

Dispatches from Spain 8

by Rich Gilbert

[Once again, my friend Rich Gilbert has sent me an e-mail from Madrid, keeping me up to date on his and Sallie’s continuing adventure.  Check back for Dispatches 1-7 (30 November, 10 December, and 20 December 2014, and 14 January and 8 March 2015) to catch up with the story.  Rich and Sallie are about halfway through their sojourn in Madrid, and they haven’t decided where they’ll go next, but they’re still learning about life in Madrid in the meantime.  There have been some interesting and potentially significant developments in Spanish politics Rich explains, and some perhaps less portentous ones in football/soccer, too.  As usual, Rich’s relation of the details of his experiences make them come alive for those of us not so familiar with Spanish culture and lifestyle.  I hope you are all also following the blog Sallie maintains on her own, Rambling Solo, at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.]

Madrid at six months‏

Madrid – April 12, 2015

Dear Friends and Family,

This coming week will bring Sallie and me to the halfway point in our year abroad.  It is hard to believe that it has gone by so quickly.  Perhaps equally important, it means that we will have a little over a month left on our lease in Madrid.  We have been comfortable here and, even though traveling will be exciting, we will miss having a “home” to come back to. (After I got out of the Army in 1982, I travelled around Europe for over three months, so I know both the fun and hardships of extended travel.) 

Daily Life

We have had rain and some colder weather recently.  A bit of a shock coming after so many clear, sunny days. A couple of weeks ago it was in the 70’s and people were sitting outside at the sidewalk cafes.  I expect that we will again soon, but I was glad I had not sent our winter clothes back just yet.

Both Sallie and I have had some disappointment in how our Spanish is coming. To be sure, we are both getting better, but it has not been as easy as we hoped / expected. Sallie is still going to class every weekday morning for 4 hours and diligently doing several hours of homework each night. Her grammar is getting much better although she still has trouble figuring out which of the many possible verb tenses and moods to use in a given case. My reading comprehension is pretty good now, although I still need a dictionary to fully understand the political pieces, and the sports stories about soccer. (The sports writers seemed determined to outdo James Joyce in describing a simple game and its players.)

Our real problems remain in hearing and speaking, in other words conversational Spanish. I get a little more practice, and am a bit less shy than Sallie.  I try to banter with the shopkeepers and bartenders / barristas I see regularly, but it is not the same as sitting down and having a real conversation.  Although they have different names, Spanish bars can serve alcohol whenever they are open, but also will always have coffee available.  For example, each morning after the gym and shopping, I drop into Cerverceria (which means a place that serves beer) Chispa to have a cafe solo (which is an expresso) and chat with the owner and glance at the paper. Her beer tap does not even work.  In addition, Spanish bars always have non-alcoholic beer available, sometimes even on tap.

We have made some friends here, although we do not see them as regularly as friends back in DC, but even then we usually speak English. We have decided to try some private lessons at Sallie’s school, just a teacher and us, to see if that helps.  We are also trying to make an effort to watch a bit more Spanish TV. We are also able to see movies out, but have usually opted to watch the same films you probably see in English although with Spanish subtitles.  We do ask for menus in Spanish, even when offered ones in English, although the English menus can be helpful with guests.

I can usually get by in simple situations, although my Spanish sometimes betrays me. I still do most of the shopping and have my favorite small merchants for the different products I buy. For convenience, Sallie prefers the supermarket around the corner; I regularly walk three blocks out of my way just to buy the bread I like best. I know that once our time here in Madrid is up, we will miss having the occasional home cooked meals; I cook a big meal for lunch two to three times a week and we often have light meals in the evening and for breakfast.

One interesting experience recently was that I had run out of some medicine which I need to take.  I had ordered more and had it sent to my post office box where a friend picked it up and mailed it to me here in Madrid.  Well, it has not gotten here yet, so I went into a pharmacy to see what it would take for them to refill the prescription.  To my surprise, I found that they could sell me the medicine over the counter. It was a larger size pill, but could be easily broken in half. She handed me a box of 50 pills, which would be equal to 100 of the pills I was getting, and said it would be two fifty. I grimaced a little and reached into my wallet to pull out five 50 Euro bills. The clerk laughed and explained that she meant two Euros and 50 centavos, less than three dollars! I was astounded, but obviously pleased.  I will have to see whether some of my other prescriptions can be filled so easily and cheaply. Does make you wonder why even with Medicare and Medicare supplement assistance, medicines in the United States are so much more expensive.

Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Easter is a considerably bigger deal in Spain than in the United States. Although there are activities throughout the week before Easter, things start off in a big way on Thursday.  The stores and business often close for Thursday through the weekend, and the ones that are open on Thursday close at lunch. Thus, it is often a four day weekend and many Spaniards travel over the holiday.  It is comparable to our Thanksgiving holiday weekend as far as travel is concerned (without the Black Friday pre-Christmas sales).

One notable aspect of Semana Santa are the religious processions.  The major churches in a town or city (always Catholic) have very elaborate “floats,” usually two, one showing Jesus carrying the cross and one showing the Madonna grieving over Jesus’ body (called the Dolorosa). These are traditional, sometimes many years old, usually covered with gold and other ornamentation. The difference is that they are carried by a team of men carrying the floats on their shoulders.  Their ability to march in lockstep through narrow streets and around tight corners puts my old ROTC drill team to shame. It is grueling work and the procession often stops for a break.  As the procession proceeds through the town, there will be spontaneous cries and cheers, and also planned activities at given places, including the town hall. There is no concern about mixing Church and State here in Spain.  The floats are accompanied by many other members of the congregation who carry candles, icons, other articles. The disconcerting thing is that these people are all wearing robes and tall pointed headpieces that look exactly like what the Ku Klux Klan used to wear.  You have to remind yourself that these costumes predate the discovery of the New World and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Klan.  (Whether the Klan borrowed the idea, I do not know, but it seems likely.)

We caught up with one in Madrid on the Thursday evening.  We never got very close because of the crowds, and like many others would try to move ahead of the procession to see it at different places. The crowd was basically respectful, but there was still a bit of a holiday atmosphere.  (Nothing like Mardi Gras however.)  In other places. such as Seville, we understand the crowds are more reverential.

To further experience the Spanish experience, we then rented a car Friday morning and left town.  I think we must have gotten one of the last rental cars in Madrid, probably because it was a stick shift.  I did not think that they even used manual transmission in rental cars, but at any rate our growing up in the 60’s helped. It had a push-button starter though, which was harder to get used to.

We spent two nights in a Parador in the Gredos Mountains (Sierra del Gredos), a beautiful mountain range about three hours to the west and north of Madrid.  Most people do not realize that Spain is actually a pretty mountainous country.  I read it was second only to Switzerland, but am not sure how Norway figures into that.  The difference is that there are numerous ranges all over the country, not just one or two chains.  We have not seen the Picos de Europa in Asturias in the north of Spain, which are the highest.  From pictures they look much like the Rockies.  (We will let you know this summer.) The mountains we saw were older, more like the Appalachians. Still, it was good to get out the hiking boots and poles for a day. 

Paradores are national hotels, usually located in historic old buildings like monasteries, palaces, castles, etc. They are nice, but not five star luxurious, and the kitchens specialize in food from the region. The one in Gredos, was the first Parador, founded in 1926 in what had been a mountain monastery.  We were surprised how many families with small children there were.

On Easter Sunday, we left and drove to Caceres, an old city in the southwest of Spain, closer to Portugal than Madrid.  The Parador there is in the center of the old town and very hard to drive to.  This was made more difficult by several street closures due to a procession, about which, of course, our GPS knew nothing.  While not as old as Barcelona’s old town, Caceres dates back to before the Roman conquest of Spain. Like other cities in Spain, it was later fought over by the Moors and Christians, in the centuries before Columbus left Spain.  

The procession was still going on when we got settled.  As we walked around the old town, we could hear the drums and flutes, but could never find it.  The narrow streets and high stone buildings created confusing echoes. Later, however, we heard a racket outside our hotel room with several men moving metal poles and lumber.  It turns out they were putting away one of the floats, which we realized when we saw the statue of the Virgin Mary lying in the back seat of one of the cars.

I gather it is the beginning of cherry blossom time in Washington, D.C.  On our way to Caceres, we came through a mountain pass in the Sierra del Gredos and into a beautiful, steep valley that had cherry trees in full bloom on the hills on both sides.  This went on for miles. It was quite spectacular and cars were stopped wherever they could on the narrow roads. So we were thinking of those of you back in D.C.

Spanish Politics

On March 22, elections were held for the regional government of Andalucia, which is the largest region in Spain, encompassing Sevilla, Cordoba, Grenada, Malaga, Cadiz, and other towns and rural areas.  The Socialist party had a surprising victory, gaining almost twice as many seats in the legislature, which in turn elects the regional president.  The incumbent president, Susannah Diaz, a Socialist, was pretty popular and the party actually focused on her in the campaign.  The election was a huge defeat for the Popular Party which is the governing party at the national level. As expected the two populist parties, Podemos and Cuidadanos, both gained seats.  (A left wing party barely got five seats, and another national party from the center was shut out, causing all sorts of upheaval at their national level.)

Diaz did not get an absolute majority, however, and the last several weeks have been about maneuvering.  Either Podemos or Cuidadanos could give the Socialists a majority if they joined the government. Both are holding out for certain concessions, the foremost of which is the dismissal of a regional senator, who was an ex-president of the region, and of another deputy as both are implicated in a corruption scandal.  Neither has been formally charged, much less convicted, so the Socialists are resisting. Such horse-trading appears to be the future of Spanish politics for the foreseeable future as none of the four major parties appears likely to win any election outright.  

The loss threw the conservative Popular Party into disarray.  They were hoping to run on the genuine improvement in the economic situation in Spain, but I think the corruption scandals, more of which involve the Popular Party, are just taking their toll.  Mariano Rajoy, the President of the Government, who is also the head of the Popular Party, called a major national meeting of the party’s leadership. One interesting thing that came out of the meeting was that local candidates were encouraged not to criticize too harshly candidates from Cuidadanos, which is the more center based of the two populist parties.  To me, this signals that Rajoy realizes that any hope of continuing to govern nationally will depend on finding a partner, and that Cuidadanos represents the most plausible alternative.

Spain has elections for some other regions and for municipalities all over Spain in May. Andalucia was a Socialist bastion, so the results from other regions will be interesting.  In September, there will be a regional election in Cataluña.  As I have mentioned before, the plan of the separatists is to run a single slate with representatives from all of the parties favoring Catalan independence.  If they win an absolute majority, they will declare that to be a binding referendum with an intention of declaring independence 18 months later, after a period of negotiation with the national government.  It is not certain that the separatists will win, but it will be close.  See Scotland. Stay tuned. National elections will be at the end of the year, after Sallie and I are back.  

Spanish Football

As expected, Real Madrid, Barcelona and to a lesser degree Atletico Madrid continue to dominate.  Barcelona won the rematch with Real Madrid in league play and now leads by two points with eight games to go. (A team gets 3 points for a win, one point for a tie and nothing for a loss.)  Barcelona and Real Madrid do not play again, so Real Madrid needs help, and must avoid losses or ties themselves. For example, Real Madrid won Saturday while Barcelona was tied by Sevilla, which narrowed the gap which had been four points. (Atletico also tied, thus did not gain ground.)

All three teams remain in the European Champions League tournament, which is down to 8 teams.  The next round is a set of home and away games starting this coming week.  Real Madrid and Atletico drew each other, so the city will be close to shutting down this coming Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Barcelona faces Paris Saint Germain, who knocked out English club Chelsea.  That should be a good set of matches.   Bayern Muenchen lurks in the other bracket, probably as the overall favorite.  France also has Monaco, while Portugal and Italy each have one team remaining.  To their embarrassment, no English club is left in the tournament. So much for Premier League domination!

Of course, this being football (soccer), there are always problems off the field.  The ex-manager of Osunana, a second division club, just went to jail for fraud. The Catalan regional prosecutors are prosecuting the head of the Barcelona club for tax fraud in conjunction with multi-million dollar contract with the Brazilian forward Neymar.  (Barcelona as a team also was barred from signing any new players for the coming year for violating the rules in conjunction with Neymar’s signing. )  Of course, none of this is as bad as Turkey, where someone opened up with a shotgun at the team bus carrying the players for one club.  Meanwhile FIFA had to face reality and recognize that the 2022 World Cup, which they had awarded to Qatar, could not possibly be played in the summer there, so it will be played in December of that year.  This will wreak havoc with the European leagues who normally play then.  It will not affect Major League Soccer which plays in the spring, summer and fall, but I seem to recall that there is another form of “football” played in the United States during that time of year which draws some mild interest. We will see how a World Cup quarterfinal matches up to, say, Packers – Patriots. That is in 7 years though. Time for other scandals to bubble up.

 *  *  *  *
Two nights after I sent my email, we were having a plate of fried baby squid at the bar of a seafood / paella restaurant when the owner came in. He knows us a little and has taken a shine to us.  He is from Asturias in the north of Spain where we plan to visit in July, so he gave us some tips. Shortly afterwards another customer came in with a present – several large pieces of salted tuna which she had gotten in Murcia (a city in the southeast of Spain, near Valencia) where it is a specialty.  The owner cut some up for us; with tomatoes and olive oil it was delicious.  (These things almost always taste better than they sound.) So I settled my bill, left a big tip and asked him to give the other customer a drink on us.  Well, the Spanish may be reticent on the street, but once the ice is broken, they are quite friendly. So the other customer started talking to us, then the other couple at the bar joined in. (The owner had given them a sample of the tuna also.)  Turns out he was a lawyer, so we started talking.  Ended up discussing the role of Spain, and its navy, in the formation of the United States. Meanwhile Sallie continued to talk to the female customer.  Several rounds of drinks later, some of them on the house, we had to leave., with assurances that we would be back.

Key fact – all of the conversations were in Spanish.  It was my longest Spanish conversation, and most interesting, to date, and it was Sallie’s first one of substance. So we not only had a great time, but got some renewed confidence in our Spanish.

15 April 2015

Rivera, Kahlo, and Detroit: The Murals

[The is the concluding half of my article on Diego Rivera, the renowned Mexican muralist, and his wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, inspired by the opening last month of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Part one covered the lives and careers of the two famous artists; in part two, I will describe the murals Rivera was commissioned to create on the walls of DIA in 1932 and ’33.  (I recommend going back first and reading part one if you haven’t already as it sets the scene for the presentation of the murals.)]

Not strictly part of the DIA exhibit, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit—because they are an integral part of the building itself and, thus, a site-specific aspect of the institute—but just down the hall from it are the 27 Detroit Industry murals in the building’s interior Garden Court, a fulfillment of the DIA architect’s original plan for the space, which was renamed the Rivera Court.  Rivera was commissioned by William R. Valentiner, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, to depict the manufacturing might of a city particularly devastated by the Great Depression.  The original commission was for two murals, but the Mexican muralist was so drawn to the machinery of industrial America which he featured prominently in many of his murals as a promise of a wondrous future, that he pressed his sponsors to let him paint all four walls of the Garden Court.  (At the same time, Kahlo hated Detroit, its food, and its weather.  As much as she had disliked New York, she traveled back there as often as she could during her yearlong sojourn just to escape Detroit!)  Valentiner and Ford agreed and soon Rivera was at work on an expanded plan stressing the relationship between man and machine and the continuous development of life.  Together and individually, through symbols, figures both Detroiters and visitors would readily recognize, and activities almost anyone who lived in or near the Motor City would immediately understand, the murals tell a narrative—Rivera’s art was one of story-telling (while Kahlo’s was one of emotional impact)—of Detroit’s (and, by extension, the United States’) manufacturing might and prowess.  The final work covers more than 43,000 square feet.

The frescoes illustrate not just the automobile industry, but also the medical and chemical industries in the city, as well as the pharmaceutical manufacturing, represented by Parke-Davis and Company (now called Pfizer, Inc.).  Nevertheless, a major sponsor of the project was Ford Motor Company president Edsel B. Ford, the 38-year-old son of founder Henry Ford.  (Ford paid Rivera’s entire fee of $21,000, the equivalent in 2015 of $338,000.)  Rivera’s murals celebrated America’s industrial strength and the riches of its land, but did not hesitate to criticize what he saw as social and political injustices (which is what got him in such trouble in New York with the Rockefellers).  Industrial technology is portrayed as both constructive and destructive, and the relationships between North and South America, management and labor, and the cosmic and technological are also explored for both good and ill. 

Rivera researched, designed, and painted the murals from April 1932 though March 1933, the depth of the Depression, starting with sketches of the panels and then painting the frescoes which are considered the most outstanding examples of Mexican mural art in the U.S. and which the artist believed were the pinnacle of his life’s work.  From April to July, Rivera prepared charcoal drawings, called “cartoons,” based on sketches, photographs, and even film footage he and Kahlo shot at Ford’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn and the Parke-Davis factory in Detroit, then the largest in the world.  Rivera and Kahlo spent months sketching and photographing in one factory after another all across the Detroit area, visiting scores of locations for his research.  Rivera completed dozens of drawings as preliminary studies so he could narrow down the pictures he wanted to show. 

Rivera’s Detroit Industry depicts manufacturing and technology as the city’s native culture and, good Marxist that he was, glorifies its labor force.  Believing that art should not be hidden away in private homes and elite galleries but installed in public buildings open to everyone, Rivera found his perfect medium in the mural.  (Rivera even devised “portable murals”—freestanding murals on cement with steel backing—to make the frescoes accessible to all.)  After he executed commissions at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and the Pacific Stock Exchange in 1931, the muralist’s monumental Detroit Industry project influenced Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to use murals to promote his New Deal, which gave birth to the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, a program of hiring out-of-work artists to create works in public buildings across the U.S. 

The murals, which Rivera began painting in July 1932, completing the whole cycle in a remarkable eight months, were painted in the Italian Renaissance fresco technique, applying water-based tempera to damp plaster.  This process takes dozens of steps for each section, working only on a portion of a panel that can be completed in a single day, to maintain the stability of the mural.  The artist worked daily in 18-hour shifts, employing assistants (for whom Rivera had to pay out of his fee; the museum bought the supplies).  The assistants prepared the walls for the frescoes, but Rivera did all the painting himself.  The work was so arduous that Rivera, who usually weighed about 300 pounds (on a 6′1″ frame), lost 100 pounds during the eight months of painting.  Part of the laborious process is the transfer of the cartoons to the walls by tracing them into the wet plaster before the pigment is applied.  (Eight of Rivera’s original cartoons are on display in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, lost in DIA storage since the 1980s and not seen by the public in 30 years.)

Rivera Court

A large, arched opening leads from the Great Hall into the Rivera Court (formerly known as the Garden Court).  On the opposite (north) end, a loggia leads to the auditorium.  The court’s walls are segmented by renaissance molding and columns within which Rivera painted the twenty-seven panels that make up the Detroit Industry mural series.  The court’s expansive skylight, marble floors, and the murals themselves all combine to create an elaborate and opulent setting.  Many, both viewers and critics, local and visitor, have characterized Detroit Industry, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2014, as the American Sistine Chapel.  In any case, there is nothing like the Detroit Industry murals anywhere else in the U.S.; they are unique.  (For images of the murals go to the Detroit Institute of Art website: www.dia.org/art/rivera-court.aspx.)   


Thematically, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle begins on the east wall, the direction of the rising sun which symbolizes beginning and renewal, where the origins of human life, raw materials, and technology are represented.  In the center panel, an infant is cradled in the womb-like bulb of a plant whose vein-like roots extend into the soil, where, in the lower corners, two steel plowshares appear.  (Some reports assert that Rivera had originally planned to use a plant bulb in this image but changed his design after his wife lost a baby.)  The fetus represents the beginnings of life, but also indicates humanity’s dependence on the bounty of the earth.  

Plowshares are used to plow under weeds and debris from the previous crop to replenish the soil with nutrients.  They symbolize the first form of technology—agriculture—and relate in substance and form to the automotive technology represented on the north and south walls.  Bracketing the main panel are two seated female nudes representing fertility and the European and indigenous populations of North (the figure with blond hair) and South America (black hair).  The nudes hold wheat and apples—produce grown in Michigan and the U.S.  Below these figures are two still-life panels representing the fruits and vegetables indigenous to Michigan.


The east wall theme of the development of technology continues on the west wall, the direction of sunsets and endings, where the technologies of air (the aviation industry), water (shipping and speedboats), and energy (the interior of Power House #1) are represented.  The symbolic significance of the west wall is made explicit in the depiction of dualities in technology, nature, and humanity and in the relationship between labor and management.  Rivera specifically shows the constructive and destructive uses of aviation; the existence in nature of species who eat down the food chain as well as those who prey on their own kind, the coexistence of life and death; the interdependence of North and South America; and the interdependence of management and labor.  This wall combines the religious symbolism of Christian theology (the Last Judgment) with the ancient Indian belief in the coexistence and interdependence of life and death.  The judgment here is related to humanity’s uses of technology.

Upper Tier: Aviation

The airplanes on the left of the fresco are passenger planes, while airplanes on the right are fighter planes adapted from the original designs for passenger planes.  (Ford made both war planes and civilian aircraft; the passenger plane is a Ford Tri-Motor, manufactured between 1925 and 1933.)  Figures in gas masks stand next to the fighter planes, and welders stand next to the passenger planes.  Rivera adjusted the perspective of the airplanes and a hangar in the fresco to the vantage point of the viewer standing on the floor of the court.  Not only are the architectural divisions of the upper tier disregarded to extend the airplanes into the side panels, but the perspective creates the illusion of a window opening out on the hangar and airfield.  Below the passenger planes is a peaceful dove feeding on a lower species.  Below the war planes is a rapacious hawk feeding on its own species.

Middle Tier: Interdependence of North and South

While the Aviation panels give the illusion of windows looking out of the court onto the scene, Rivera created the opposite illusion, that of a sculpted niche, below the central window.  Here he painted a compass rose in monochrome gray to suggest that it is carved in stone (directly above the middle tier).  The compass points to the northeast and southwest simultaneously.  Most likely the compass introduces the theme of the interdependence of North and South America.  On the right side of the panel is a rubber tree plantation where four men are shown collecting sap to make latex.  In 1927, Ford had established Fordlandia, a rubber plantation in Brazil, to produce latex for automobile tire production at the Rouge.  Rivera hoped for stronger relations between South and North America through investments and trade, and he spoke of this panel as a representation of the interconnectedness of the industrial north and agrarian south.  

Two Great Lakes freighters (based on Ford Motor Company ships that carried raw materials from the northern Great Lakes to the Rouge) pass, while speed boats and fish glide in front of them.  With the industrial port on the left and the rubber tree plantation on the right, the water represents the symbolic confluence of the Detroit and Amazon rivers and represents the interdependence of the Americas.  The industrial port is based on the actual boat slip at the Rouge.  A pipe-fitter and man working a chain pulley appear in front of a bridge crane on railroad tracks used to unload freighters.  The skyline of the city of Detroit is represented in the left background.  

The coexistence of life and death is graphically presented above the center of the shipping panel, where a half-face and half-skull are painted on either side of a five-pointed star.  This dualism is a spiritual concept that goes back to the most ancient beliefs in Mexico.  The half-face is a portrait of George Washington, whom Rivera referred to as America’s first revolutionary.

Lower Tier: Steam and Electricity

This is the section that plays out Rivera’s theme of “man and machine.”  Vertical panels on each side of the west entrance to the court introduce the theme of the automobile industry through representation of Power House #1.  The Power House was the principal power generation and distribution facility at the Rouge.  The manager/engineer in the electricity panel is a composite portrait of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, who were close friends throughout their adult lives.  The worker/mechanic is associated with the raw energy of steam.  Rivera, in a small joke, put a red star on the worker’s glove, which would indicate that he’s a communist except for the fact that one of Detroit’s businesses was a leather-goods company called the Red Star Glove Company.  The manager engineer is associated with the transformed power of electricity.  Here, Rivera graphically demonstrates the dichotomy of workers and capitalists in the steam and electricity panels of the west wall.  He associates each with different kinds of power but also shows how these forms of power are inextricably linked.  (Note that the turbine in this panel resembles an ear, maybe emphasizing the managers’ oversight of the workers.)


The north and south walls are devoted to representations of the four races (two on each wall, at the top tier), the automobile industry (in the large mid-sections), and the other Detroit industries—medicine, drugs, gas bomb manufacture, and commercial chemicals (in the side panels).  They continue the themes established on the east and west walls which combine ancient and Christian symbols.  The organization of each wall follows a pattern: monumental figures on top, the worker’s everyday world of the factories in the center, and small monochrome, so-called predella panels showing a day in the life of a worker on the lower edge.  (An actual predella is a painting or sculpture along the frame at the bottom of an altarpiece.)

North and South Walls: The Four Races Panels

On the upper level of the north and south walls, Rivera painted giant red (representing Native North and South Americans), black (Africans), yellow (Asians), and white (Europeans) female figures symbolic of the diverse workforce.  Each figure holds in her hand one of the raw materials necessary for making steel and cars—Rivera attributed the tensile strength of the raw materials with his conception of the character of each race: the red race he associated with iron ore (the first ingredient for making steel for the first race in the Americas), the black race with diamonds and coal (which provides the hardness of steel as the black laborer affords to the manufacturing process), the yellow race with quartz sand (silica, used in making glass), and the white race with the building material of limestone.

North and South Walls: Geological Strata Panels

Below the four races panels, Rivera painted geological cross-sections showing iron ore under the red race, coal and diamonds under the black race, limestone under the white race, and quartz crystals and fossils under the yellow race.

North and South Wall Corner Panels: Vaccination, Manufacture of Poisonous Gas Bombs, Pharmaceutics, and Commercial Chemical Operations

On both sides of the four races panels on the north and south walls, Rivera painted corner panels that serve as visual parentheses to the gigantic figures.  They continue the themes of the unity of organic and inorganic life and the constructive and destructive uses of technology.

North Wall: Vaccination Panel

The north wall right corner panel depicts a child being vaccinated by a doctor who is attended by a nurse.  The composition of this panel is directly taken from the Italian Renaissance form of the nativity, where the biblical figures of Mary (the nurse, a portrait of actress Jean Harlow) and Joseph (the doctor, a likeness of William Valentiner), and Jesus (the baby being inoculated; his face is modeled on the infant son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, kidnapped and murdered in March 1932) are depicted in the foreground and the three wise men in the background.  The three wise men—which Rivera identified as a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew, the ecumenical wise men of the modern world—are scientists who dissect dogs for the benefit of human health.  In the foreground are a horse (not a donkey as is common in Christian iconography), a sheep, and a cow, the sources of the vaccines.  Vaccines are made in the background by three scientists in a dissection laboratory.  This is the panel that depicts the “good” science that benefits life.

North Wall: Healthy Human Embryo Panel

Below the vaccination panel, a healthy human embryo is shown gaining sustenance from the geological strata and at the same time being threatened by microscopic images of diseases.  The embryo sac is surrounded by an egg.  Sperm, multiplying chromosomes, red and white blood cells, and six forms of bacteria are associated with the work of the three scientists in the vaccination panel.

North Wall: Manufacture of Poisonous Gas Bombs

On the left corner is a frightening depiction of the production of gas bombs by insect-like (or perhaps alien?) figures in gas masks.  Gas canisters and a completed bomb hangs ominously over their heads.  This panel illustrates the “bad” science that harms life.

North Wall: Cells Suffocated by Poisonous Gas

The small panel below the production of gas bombs shows a microscopic view of cells being attacked and destroyed by poisonous gases.  

South Wall: Pharmaceutics Panel

Pharmaceutics is based on drawings of the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical firm in Detroit.  The figure in the foreground represents the chemist/manager, who is surrounded by devices such as a pill sorter, an adding machine on top of a Gothic-style radio, a microphone, and a telephone.  Women sorting pills surround the manager.  The background shows drying ovens and chemical operations.

South Wall: Surgery Panel

The small panel below the Pharmaceutics panel depicts brain surgery in the center, surrounded by human organs, and the same four geological elements found in the middle tiers—iron, coal, limestone, and sand.  Above the gloved hands is a view of an open skull. The right hand of the surgeon has just extracted a brain tumor.  Rivera divided the organs between those of reproduction on the right and digestion on the left.  On the upper right side of Surgery, male and female sexual glands are represented.  Digestive organs are presented on the left.  In the lower foreground Rivera painted three covered dissecting trays.

South Wall: Commercial Chemical Operations Panel

The right corner panel may depict a magnesium cell operation or perhaps an ammonia operation.  The panel is stylistically and compositionally the most sophisticated of the upper panels.  It is painted in a Futurist style to demonstrate the movement of the workers, showing them in two different positions.  Use of this style is rare in Rivera’s work.

The figure in the lower left holds a torch to heat substances in the drums.  In the left background a man in a lab coat works with standard chemical apparatus at a table.  Behind him a workman studies gauges probably related to the ovens.  In the upper right a man may be working on a brine well drilling process.

South Wall: Sulfur and Potash Panel

Below the Chemical panel, the natural state of sulfur and potash is shown.  The crystals on the left are halite, or table salt; the crystals on the right are sulfur.  In the center, spherical objects in the four groups are suspended in gaseous fumes emanating from the salt and sulfur.  This panel continues the theme of the development of life from inanimate material.

North Wall: Production and Manufacture of Engine and Transmission

On the largest panel of the north wall Rivera combined the interiors of five buildings at the Rouge: the blast furnace, open hearth furnace, production foundry, motor assembly plant, and steel rolling mills.  (Near the blast furnace is a figure in a bowler hat among the workers.  This is a self-portrait of Rivera intended to show his solidarity with the workers in whose midst he stands.)  The panel represents all the important operations in the production and manufacture of an automobile, specifically the engine and transmission housing of the 1932 Ford V-8, all tied together with the ribbon of the conveyor belt (the Rouge had 120 miles of it) and assembly lines (at its peak, the pant employed 100,000 workers), like some immense, symbolic circulatory system.  One of the first stages in the production of steel is carried out in the blast furnaces, glowing the red and orange of extreme heat, where iron ore, coke (made from coal), and limestone are reduced by heat to make iron.  Here, the blast furnace, the dominant background image, is the terminus of a processional way created by two rows of multiple spindles accompanied by conveyor lines.  The spindles, which focus the viewer’s attention to the furnace, resemble Toltec guardians, connecting the modern technology to an earlier, pre-industrial time.  The steel milling processes then continue in the predella panels below.

Rivera included a variety of faces and physiques in his figures, reflecting the multiracial work force at Ford as well as his own assistants on the mural project.  Though in the 1930s, the assembly-line workers at the Ford plant (as elsewhere in industry) were all white—the non-white workers being relegated to the menial and unpleasant jobs—Rivera painted his ideal workers as representing racially mixed laborers working harmoniously together.  His emphasis on the multiracial workforce in the automobile panels expressed a Marxist hope for the future power of the working class.

South Wall: Production of Automobile Exterior and Final Assembly

Rivera combined another five buildings at the Rouge in the major panel of the south wall: the Pressed Steel Building (now Dearborn Stamping Plant); B Building (now Dearborn Assembly Plant); the Spring and Upset Building: By-products Building; and the Glass Plant.  This automotive panel is devoted to the production of the exterior of the 1932 Ford V-8 and its final assembly.  Unlike the north wall, this panel is not organized in production sequence, although all the major operations are included.  The creation of the automobile body parts begins at the right, where the monumental stamping press produces fenders out of large sheets of steel.  A cluster of stamping presses appears in the upper left section.

The huge stamping press in this panel is of special note.  In all of Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, he prided himself in the accuracy of the machines he represented, but this machine was an older version of the one in use at the plant, a sleeker and more modern-looking press.  Rivera saw in the older version a resemblance to Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of creation.  Both a giver and destroyer of life, Coatlicue was fed human hearts as a sacrifice to keep her maintaining the order of the universe.  Rivera saw the assembly-line laborers as sacrificial victims of overwork, repetitive (machine-like) motion, and noxious fumes, to the worship of the mechanical gods of industry and capitalism.  The stamping press-Coatlicue presided over this sacrifice. 

After the auto body parts are stamped into forms, they are spot welded.  Spot welding is carried out to the lower left of the stamping press.  The surface is then smoothed out in the buffing process, which is in the lower left foreground.  Workmen are being observed by a foreman in hat and glasses.  This figure represents the constant hostile supervision at Ford by production managers who were more interested in quotas than in the conditions of the workers or their environment.

At the top of the panel in the center is the welding buck where the separate parts are welded into the body of the car.  To the right of the buck, women sew upholstery and to the left, painters spray the bodies before they are conveyed into the ovens.  Below the welding buck is the final assembly of the car.  Men use pulleys to secure the chassis to the line.  Along the line, the motors are lowered into the chassis, wheels attached, and the body secured.  At the very end of the assembly line Rivera painted a tiny red car speeding off into time and space.  The focus of the panel is on the work; the end result, the distant and nearly unnoticeable red Ford, is not the heart of the effort.  The tiny, four-inch-long car (in a panel that measures nearly 800 square feet), driving off the assembly line, all but disappears into the “process.”

There are two groups of people who are not workers in this panel.  The first is a tour group made up of dour-faced bourgeoisie who look blankly or disapprovingly at the workers.  (Tours of the plant, which were then quite common, to see the workers at their hard labor, was reminiscent of the 18th-century practice of encouraging ordinary people to visit asylums to gawk at the crazy folk.)  Some figures are reminiscent of comic strip characters such as Dick Tracy and the Katzenjammer Kids.  The second group is two observers standing at the lower right section.  Rivera painted these two figures in the traditional position of Italian Renaissance donors.  On the left is a portrait of Edsel B. Ford and on the right a portrait of William Valentiner.  Valentiner holds the contract for the mural project.

Predella Panels

Apart from their similarity to Italian medieval and Renaissance altar paintings, Rivera’s predella panels are also reminiscent, in their monochromaticism, of traditional grisaille, paintings executed entirely or mostly in shades of grey, where the intent was to create the illusion of a sculptural frieze.  He used the predella both to show a day in the life of a worker—punching in, performing their regular routines, returning home after the workday—and to illustrate some of the major production processes not easily included in the larger panels.  The predella panels appear as if fixed to steel gates, which separate the viewer from the workers in the automotive panel.  The center of each gate is open with handles and chains on each sliding door, inviting the viewer into the factory space.

When the murals were revealed to the public, several groups and individuals raised objections.  Some even lamented the loss of the Garden Court, with its palm trees, central fountain, and empty walls.  Bluenoses labeled the nudes symbolizing fertility pornographic.  The vaccination panel was called sacrilegious by clergy because it evoked the nativity scene for secular purposes.  The factory scenes showed the different races working together harmoniously, an affront to segregationists who were the prevailing population in Jim Crow America. 

A front-page Detroit News editorial, calling the murals “un-American,” “a slander,” “vulgar,” and “coarse,” demanded they be whitewashed.  It didn’t help that many questioned why a Mexican communist had been hired to paint the works over an American artist during a time of such widespread joblessness.  (This casual xenophobia wasn’t limited to the artist: the Detroit Free Press also noted that DIA director Valentiner was German-born.)  Some critics asserted that Rivera had presented the city with a graphic Communist Manifesto. 

The notorious Father Charles Coughlin, a vocal anti-Semite and supporter of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, denounced Rivera and the murals on his popular radio program and Rev. H. Ralph Higgins of Grand Rapids’ St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral held meetings of prominent Detroiters who opposed the paintings.  Both called for the murals’ destruction.

Edsel Ford, however, calmed the outcry with his statement: “I admire Riveras spirit.  I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.”  (Some have long suspected that Ford engineered the protests and denunciations to build up curiosity and interest in the murals.  If he did, his tactic worked!)

Supporters of the murals also spoke out, especially the unions, which saw in Rivera’s portrayals of the workers a tribute to their dignity and hard work.  Rivera recorded later that he viewed this as proof that they felt the murals “had been created exclusively for the pleasure of the workers of this city.”  Prominent intellectuals and fellow artists, the same voices that had protested the destruction of Man at the Crossroads in New York, spoke in favor of the work as well.  100,000 visitors came to see the murals in the month after they were opened to the public, sometimes as many as 10,000 in a single day, and 1934 saw DIA’s patronage rise to its highest level in its seven-year history. 

In the 1950’s, at the height of the McCarthyist anti-communist era, the controversy of Rivera’s Marxism reemerged.  The DIA put up a large sign that averred that “Rivera's politics and his publicity seeking are detestable,” but went on to insist that the artist painted Detroit’s industry and technology as “wonderful and very exciting” and “as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.”  The DIA administration ended with the statement: “If we are proud of this city's achievements, we should be proud of these paintings.” 

Today, the artistic value of Rivera’s Detroit Industry is no longer even in question.  They are universally recognized as masterpieces, even if you don’t agree with or even particularly like the social commentary the artist incorporated in his art.  If the murals provoke disagreement or debate on that level . . . well, then, they have accomplished what Rivera intended.

[A few weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit, there was a hunger march on Ford’s River Rouge Plant in protest of layoffs.  The police, the army, and Pinkerton agents opened fire on the marchers, killing five people and wounding 20.  Though many Detroiters wondered why Henry Ford, Edsel’s father and the founder of the automobile firm, acquiesced in the mural project, there was a very strong feeling, not supported by Ford Company records, that Henry Ford did not block the murals because he felt it would be good publicity for the company to do something so grand.  This labor unrest (which was even echoed in Rivera’s professional relationship with his assistants), like the Depression itself, was not portrayed in the murals in any way, which presented the labor as harmonious and nearly utopian.

[The Detroit Institute of Arts is located at 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202; (313) 833-7900 (TDD: (313) 833-1454).  It’s open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mondays.  (There are special extended hours for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit.)  Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for students (with student photo ID), and $4 for children 6-17; children under 6, residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties, and DIA members (with driver’s license) are admitted free.  (Active military personnel and their families are admitted free from May 30 to September 5.)  For travel directions and further information, visit the DIA website, http://www.dia.org.]