[The City of Detroit declared a financial emergency in March 2013 and in July filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history. The Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan declared Detroit bankrupt in December citing $18.5 billion in debt and declaring that negotiations with its creditors were unfeasible. In November 2014, the court approved a restructuring plan allowing the city to begin exiting bankruptcy. Detroit successfully left municipal bankruptcy with all its finances returned to city control in December 2014.
[After Detroit declared bankruptcy in July 2013, creditors targeted the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts as a potential source of revenue. The state-appointed emergency manager hired Christie’s, the art auction house, to determine the market value of the art purchased with city funds. To prevent the sale of the works, DIA supporters developed what was dubbed “the Grand Bargain,” under which the museum and the State of Michigan would raise sufficient funds to keep the museum afloat and guarantee municipal workers’ pensions. In return, the City of Detroit would cede ownership of the collection and the building to the non-profit entity that already operated the museum. Though this plan was challenged by some city creditors, last November, a judge approved the Grand Bargain which didn’t require DIA to sell any art. Thousands of art-lovers in Detroit and elsewhere breathed a huge sigh of relief.]
[On 15 March, a new exhibit, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, opened at DIA, and while the show was conceived nearly a decade ago, its opening came right on the heels of the happy outcome of the anxious 20-month bankruptcy scare. (The show is scheduled to close on 12 July.) In part one of “Rivera, Kahlo, and Detroit,” I’ll discuss the two fascinating artists and set the scene for the creation of the great murals Rivera painted on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932-33.]
In 1932 and ’33, revolutionary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his wife, painter Frida Kahlo, were living and working in what was then the home of the world’s largest manufacturing industry, Detroit. He was creating the now-beloved and -esteemed murals known as Detroit Industry on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, the new exhibit at that very DIA, throws a spotlight on the murals and 70 other works by both painters showing the evolutions of their careers as well as the tensions between their separate styles and approaches—which the New York Times characterizes as “a kind of contest between a hefty hare and a tiny tortoise”—a tension that was also manifest in their personal relationship as well.
Diego Maria de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez (1886-1957) was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, to a prosperous family. (He was a twin, but his brother, Carlos, died when they were 14 months old.) Raised a Catholic, Rivera acknowledged his heritage as a Converso, Mexicans whose Jewish ancestors had been forced to convert during the Inquisition in 15th- and 16th-century Spain and Portugal, passed down through his mother’s line. (I posted an article on ROT on Chicano Americans in New Mexico who discovered their Converso roots in the 20th century, “Crypto-Jews: Legacy of Secrecy,” on 15 September 2009.) Though he never practiced Judaism or affiliated with the Jewish community in Mexico, in 1935, the then-famous painter wrote, “My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.” As an avowed communist, of course, Rivera was an atheist.
The future muralist began drawing the year after his brother died, using the walls of his family’s home as his platform. His parents, rather than getting angry, merely lined the house’s walls with canvases and chalkboards and encouraged their son’s budding artistry. At the age of 10, Rivera was sent to Mexico City to study at the Academy of San Carlos until 1905. In 1907, the governor of the State of Veracruz sponsored his further art studies in Europe, first in Madrid and then in Paris, the modern-art capital of the western world at that time. Like many young artists before him, Rivera settled in Montparnasse, the bohemian center of Paris’s art scene, where he became friends with such artists as Russian painter Chaim Soutine, Frenchman Henri Matisse, Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani (who painted his portrait in 1914), French painter Robert Delaunay, Spaniard Pablo Picasso, and French Cubist Georges Braque.
Under the influence of Picasso and Braque, both working in the cubist style at the time Rivera arrived in Paris, the Mexican painter began working in the new form, too. Between 1913 and 1917, the young artist painted cubist canvases until, inspired by Paul Cézanne, he switched to Post-Impressionism. (In 2004, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., mounted The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place, a small exhibit of Rivera’s cubist works.) With this shift in style, Rivera’s art began to attract notice and he exhibited in several Paris shows.
My impression of Rivera’s art of this period, however, is that he began trying out all the current styles, the Cubism of Picasso, Braque, and Marcel Duchamp; and the Post-Impressionism of Cézanne and Auguste Renoir, for brief periods, trying to find his own voice. (Rivera also experimented with Surrealism in the early ’40s, but it was a short-lived exploration.) None of these experiments lasted very long, and there weren't many cubist works in the NGA show—and most of them were interesting only as curiosities the way Picasso's realistic works as a young artist are. They merely contrast with the more identifiable works of the maturer artists—in Rivera's case, the murals and Mexican history and folklore he worked with for most of his career. In any case, the Mexican painter left Paris in 1920 and traveled through Italy to study the art there, particularly the Renaissance frescoes of Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, and Masaccio.
Rivera returned to Mexico in 1921 to take part in the government-sponsored mural project planned by the new Minister of Education. Also involved in the effort were José Orozco, David Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, all among Mexico’s most renowned artists today. (Among my favorite pieces in my parents’ art collection is Personaje de Perfil, a 1980 Tamayo print.) In January of the next year, Rivera painted his first important mural, La creación, in Mexico City’s National Preparatory School.
Upon his return home, the young artist immediately joined the revolutionary movement, even claiming to have fought with Emiliano Zapata against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to enhance his bona fides. (Zapata was a leader of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-20, but Rivera never bore arms in the struggle.) In 1922, the painter helped found the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors and subsequently joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), eventually becoming a member of its Central Committee. The painter’s first wife, Russian émigrée Angelina Bellof, had introduced him to communism in Paris and he remained loyal to the party all his life—even if the party wasn’t always loyal to Rivera.
(Disenchanted with Rivera’s independence and individualism, after having invited the artist to Moscow for the 10th anniversary celebration of the October Revolution in 1927, Joseph Stalin expelled him from the Soviet Union for “anti-Soviet” activities. When he returned to Mexico, Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural for the Secretariat of Public Education, but the Mexican party saw in its depiction of a Trotskyite leader who was assassinated in Mexico City evidence that Rivera knew about the crime beforehand. The muralist was labeled a Trotskyite himself and ousted from the Mexican party for ideological “deviation.” Leon Trotsky, who became an adversary to Stalin in Russia, was a friend of the Riveras and even spent 1937 as the houseguest of Rivera and Kahlo, who was also a PCM member. Trotsky is reported to have had an affair with Kahlo when he lived in her home. The Russian revolutionary and his wife moved to their own house near Kahlo’s in 1940 and he was assassinated there by Stalin’s agents in 1940. The artist, a somewhat fractious party member from the beginning, though expelled by the PCM, spent the rest of his life trying to get back in.)
Rivera’s domestic life was also tumultuous. He was famously married to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, but she was his third (and fourth—he married her twice) wife. Rivera’s first wife, Angelina Beloff, seven years his senior, was a Russian artist he met in Paris the year she arrived there, 1909, and they married almost right away. The couple had a son, Diego, in 1916, but he died in 1918 (possibly a victim of the Spanish influenza pandemic). When Rivera left Paris in 1921, he divorced Beloff and left her behind—though she moved to Mexico herself in 1932 and did most of her painting there. She died in Mexico City in 1969, at the age of 90. (While he was still married to Beloff, Rivera had a daughter, Marika, with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, a Russian-born Cubist painter. Marika became a French film actress in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s and died in England in 2010 at 90.)
In 1922, after he’d returned to Mexico, he met and married Guadalupe Marín, a model and novelist. She figured in several of her husband’s paintings, and was even the subject of a portrait by Kahlo, whom Rivera met while he was married to Marín. Rivera and Marín had two daughters, Guadalupe (born 1924) and Ruth (1927); Rivera divorced Marín in 1929, the year he married Kahlo; she died in 1983 at 87.
When Rivera met Kahlo, she was an art student of 22 and he was 43. They’d already been corresponding, as Kahlo reached out to Rivera for advice and guidance for her career as an artist. They had a tempestuous marriage, and they both had numerous affairs and dalliances. (Some of Kahlo’s relationships were with women, notably Josephine Baker.) They divorced in 1939 but remarried a year later. Kahlo pursued her own career, frequently living separately from her husband (though often near him), and a year after her death in 1954, Rivera married Emma Hurtado, his agent for eight years.
Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón (1907-54) was born in Coyoacán, a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City that’s now part of the metropolis. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a German-born photographer (his birth name was Carl Wilhelm Kahl; when he arrived in Mexico, he hispanicized it) and her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, part Mexican Indian, worked in a jewelry store. Frida Kahlo was the third of four sisters; there were two older half-sisters from her father’s first marriage (which had left him a widower).
When Kahlo was but three years old, the Mexican Revolution broke out, lasting for the next ten years with sporadic gunfire erupting in the streets of Mexico City. (She often gave the year of her birth as 1910 to indicate that both she and revolutionary Mexico had begun life in the same year.) At six, Kahlo contracted polio which left her right leg thinner than her left. She took to wearing long, brightly-colored peasant dresses, for which she became famous, to cover the deformity. She nonetheless participated in several sports.
In 1925, the teen schoolgirl was riding a bus which collided with a streetcar. Kahlo was badly hurt, suffering a list of serious injuries almost too daunting to read. Undergoing dozens of operations, she spent three months recovering in a hospital encased in a full-body cast. Her injuries healed and she ultimately recovered her ability to walk, but Kahlo suffered bouts of extreme pain periodically throughout her life which forced her return to a hospital, and several of the injuries permanently destroyed her ability to bear children. (As part of the DIA exhibit, on display is Accidente, a pencil sketch of the collision drawn in 1926 while the then-novice artist was still recuperating.)
Kahlo had been heading for a medical career before her accident but she abandoned that pursuit after her hospitalization. She taught herself to paint to pass the time during her recuperation and she took to art professionally after her discharge. She was isolated for so much of her convalescence, unable either to go anywhere or to see other people, that her principal subject was herself. The predominance of self-portraiture in Kalho’s work was the result: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Her mother devised a special easel on which Kahlo could paint in bed while she recovered and her father lent her some of his brushes and paints, and the young patient used painting both to occupy herself while she was sequestered and to convey her pain. Her best-known works—over 50 of her 140 paintings—are her self-portraits, usually in the colorful peasant dresses she favored and frequently incorporating some kind of text in a banderole.
The portraits often continued to depict her persistent suffering, including her inability to bear children, frequently in symbolic representation. (Kahlo didn’t flatter herself in her paintings, either, usually portraying herself with a slight mustache and a bristling unibrow.) One of Kahlo’s works in the DIA show, for example, is Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) (1932), painted while she was in Detroit, showing the artist bleeding in a hospital bed after the painful end of one of her pregnancies, either from a miscarriage or a termination. Made soon after her hospitalization, Henry Ford Hospital depicts Kahlo as “glassy-eyed, with a frightened and drawn expression,” writes Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post. Painted on metal to provide an industrial quality that reflected the Detroit she’d come to hate (while Rivera admired its industrial strength and productiveness), it depicts the looming skyline of Ford’s River Rouge Plant in the background. Kennicott describes the painting as showing “a woman in a hospital bed, with the date and place inscribed on the bed rails. She lies naked and supine, yet connected by cords to small anatomical, zoological and industrial images, including a fetus or baby, a snail and a rendering of the pelvis.” (The exhibit also includes a pencil sketch of the same image, displayed next to the painting.)
It was Kahlo who first approached Rivera, already a well-known artist in Mexico City. While he was at work on a mural in 1927, Kahlo went to him and showed him some of her work, asking if he thought she was talented. According to the common account, he recognized her gift immediately and encouraged her and advised her. Though he was 18 years older than she, Rivera was a frequent and welcome visitor at La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the Kahlo home in Coyoacán. The tyro painter had long admired the famous muralist, whom she first met when she would watch him working on La creación at the National Preparatory School the same year Kahlo became one of only 35 girls—among 2000 boys—enrolled there. Rivera never imposed his style on her, rather encouraging Kahlo to find her own vision. She never deferred to him nor tried to compete with him, either. Like her mentor, however, Kahlo was very taken with indigenous Mexican folklore and culture and often incorporated its imagery in her paintings, most notably the monkey figure, a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology but seen as protective by Kahlo (Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1945; oil on masonite).
Having abandoned Cubism as too “elitist,” Rivera painted his murals and canvases in a Mexican-infused (he was heavily influenced by Mayan and Aztec imagery and well as Mexican folk art) form of Socialist Realism, the official art style of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Kahlo’s work was much more fanciful. Often compared to Surrealism, an artistic movement that drew on dreams and the unconscious, Kahlo rejected the label, arguing that her work was less informed by her dreams than her reality. (She’d seen a historic show in New York before going to Detroit, the Surrealist group show at the Julien Levy Gallery which displayed works by Picasso, Max Ernst, Duchamp, and Salvador Dalí. Six years later, Kahlo had her only solo U.S. exhibit at Levy’s gallery, a well-received introduction of her work to this country and a number of prominent artists who viewed the show. Surrealist icon André Breton wrote the introduction to the exhibit’s catalogue—and then invited Kahlo to Paris in 1939 where she exhibited her work again.)
The artist gained an international reputation in her lifetime—one of her self-portraits, The Frame (oil on aluminum and glass, 1938), was bought by the Louvre from the Paris show, the first artwork by a 20th-century Mexican artist purchased by the Paris museum—but mostly among cognoscenti and devotees of her husband’s art; after her death at 47 in 1954, however, her fame and popularity increased. Mexican art became known to the public in the 1970s and ’80s, with exhibits in big museums around the world, featuring indigenous Mexican artists including Kahlo. Interest in and knowledge of Latin American art increased in galleries, museums, and auction houses; Sotheby’s and Christie’s reported, for instance, increases in sales from an average of $2.25 million in 1981 to $20.65 million in 1989. (The opera Frida by Robert Xavier Rodriguez premièred in Philadelphia in 1991 and the bio-film of the same name directed by Julie Taymor came out in 2002, with Salma Hayek portraying the artist and Alfred Molina as Rivera. Other works about Kahlo have appeared in recent years, focusing attention on both her life and her art.)
Kahlo also became a potent symbol of female independence and empowerment during the late 20th century in recognition of both her artistic output, which always followed her own vision, and the way she lived her life, from her style of dress to her intelligence and intellectual independence to her candor and honesty to the hardships she endured and triumphed over to her strength in adversity to her sexual unconventionality. Her style of dress made her something of a fashion star as well, the subject of a Vogue pictorial in 1937. (In 2012, a trove of Kahlo’s clothes, including 300 dresses plus bathing suits and accessories, was discovered at the Casa Azul museum, secreted from public view for 50 years by Rivera’s instructions. They went on exhibit in November of that year.)
Kahlo’s art, which combined the folk-art styles of Mexico and South America with classical and modern European forms (her early paintings have been compared to Renaissance portraits), explored her private experiences while also making political and social points. In addition, as Hayden Herrera, author of Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (Harper & Row, 1983), wrote, “Although her paintings record specific moments in her life, all who look at them feel that Frida is speaking directly to them.” In the words of the Times’s Roberta Smith, who also compared Rivera’s paintings to “a kind of cathedral,” while Kahlo’s are “portable altarpieces for private devotion,” “Her work is everything Rivera’s art is not: small in size and suffused with personal emotion and existential torment.” Like Rivera, she used broad areas of vibrant color and a consciously naïve painting style. She frequently incorporated elements of Mexican archaeology and pre-Columbian art in her self-portraits, juxtaposing them with fantastical and strange images. She shocked many with the depictions of her fantastic images—Surrealism was still a new form—and her frank display of sexuality. Her works are still seen as “graphic and groundbreaking,” in the words of the Detroit News’s Louis Aguilar on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Rivera’s DAI frescoes. (She was commissioned by Clare Booth Luce in 1938 to do a portrait of the publisher’s wife and her friend, actress Dorothy Hale, who’d just committed suicide. It was to be a traditional portrait as a gift for Hale’s grieving mother but instead, Kahlo painted the story of Hale’s suicidal jump from a New York high rise. The finished painting, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, 1939, horrified Luce—though critics praised it.)
(Another disturbing work, My Birth, 1932, is part of a series depicting significant events in Kahlo's life which Rivera had encouraged her to create. Kahlo wrote in her journal that the painting shows her giving birth to herself. It’s a gory scene in which the artist’s grossly oversized head is emerging from the mother’s womb as a puddle of blood forms between the mother’s spread legs. Her chest and head are covered by a sheet and over the bed’s headboard, a portrait of Our Lady of Sorrows weeps. The New York Times characterized the painting as “a bloody depiction of childbirth whose candor [is] astonishing even in today's unprudish world.” Now owned by Madonna, one of Kahlo’s best-known fans, My Birth can be disquieting and the singer has said she uses it to determine who will be a friend and who won’t: anyone who doesn’t like the painting won’t be welcome.)
Despite the influences of movements such as Surrealism and other artists, including her husband, Kahlo’s style was uniquely her own, immediately distinctive and emotionally evocative. She’s become recognized today as an artist of daring and originality. According to the Post’s Kennicott, the couple’s yearlong sojourn in Detroit was a turning point for Kahlo. When she arrived in the city, Kennicott observes, she was painting in her husband’s “shadow,” exhibiting simplicity and naïveté; while in Detroit, her art gained depth and complexity. While her subject often remained herself (she also did portraits of others and still lifes), her paintings explored ideas beyond the personal to the world around her. The inclusion of her vision of the cold, industrial Ford plant behind her naked, bleeding body in Henry Ford Hospital, Kennicott points out, demonstrates this expansion. (The image of the plant doesn’t exist in the earlier pencil sketch of the scene.) Many of the symbolic figures Kahlo put into her canvases also reveal a cognizance of wider social and political issues almost as emphatically as Rivera’s portrayals of workers, peasants, and radicals. Using her own life as a vehicle, Kahlo’s art championed the struggle of women to overcome the traditional barriers of gender. Upon her arrival in Detroit, in answer to a reporter’s question whether she, too, was a painter, Kahlo said unabashedly, “Yes, the greatest in the world.” As if to confirm this, the Mexican government declared her art to be “cultural patrimony of the nation” in 1984 (an honor also bestowed on her husband). In the late 20th century, Kahlo became an inspiration and model for a whole generation of artists from many different communities: Chicanos, Latinos, feminists, LGBT’s, and young Mexicans.
Rivera’s communist leanings led him to sympathize with the struggles of the Mexican workers and peasants. The revolutionary artist insisted, in fact:
To be an artist, one must first be a man, vitally concerned with all problems of social struggle, unflinching in portraying them without concealment or evasion, never shirking the truth as he understands it, never withdrawing from life.
For Rivera, all art was a form of propaganda—or education, depending on the viewer’s perspective—and his art made people take sides, regardless of their original point of view. “Rivera thought that art could change the world,” says Lynn Zelevansky, curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at the time it hosted a Rivera retrospective. “So when he did this work, he did it to communicate real values. They were teaching tools.” Zelevansky adds that
one of his major thrusts is going to be this sort of diary of Mexican daily life told from the view of the lower classes, and he has a vision in his art of a kind of utopia that is a multiracial, multicultural utopia, and these figures are the embodiment of that vision.
(It was a sentiment that, when he put it into practice in the United States, got him into difficulties at times. Notes Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art: “Diego would always affirm that it didn’t matter who sponsored the mural as long as the mural itself was ideologically correct, or at least truthful to his convictions.” The DIA murals caused not a little consternation among Detroit’s capitalist and religious leaders, and the artist’s view of truth and history so angered his sponsors at New York’s Rockefeller Center, the über-capitalist Rockefeller family, that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., ordered the mural Man at the Crossroads, which he’d commissioned from Rivera for the main lobby of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, destroyed in 1934 before it was completed.)
The artist had quickly risen in the esteem of his countrymen and in Mexico he became “a legendary figure on the order of George Washington, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh” here in the States. For his people and even the government of Mexico. Rivera was seen as the “definer of Mexico’s national myth, a champion of its popular uprisings and its fertile mix of races and cultures.” In the rest of the world, however, he was yet to be recognized as anything more than a minor Cubist from his days in Paris or a sidelight to contemporary art and “a master propagandist for the new Mexican state.” Zelevansky asserts that Rivera became
one of the great innovators of 20th century art, because what he does is he takes everything that he’s learned in Europe from European modernism, and he melds it with the art of ancient Mexico, Mayan and Aztec art, to come up with a new form that will allow him to express social and political ideas on a broad scale.
After his death, however, the art world was beginning to catch up with Rivera’s native country in its estimation of his importance. By the time of DIA’s 1986 Diego Rivera: A Retrospective in celebration of the centennial of his birth, his status had elevated to somewhere around the second rank of world artists. For a time in the ’70s and ’80s, his reputation as an artist was eclipsed by that of Kahlo’s. Following the Cleveland show (which subsequently traveled to Los Angeles, Houston, and Mexico City), some art critics changed their tunes. Steven Litt of the Plain Dealer wrote that “Rivera’s art is still politically useful . . . . It’s also very, very good, which amply justifies all the renewed attention.” Co-organizer of Art and Revolution, Luis-Martín Lozano, a Mexico City-based independent curator, asserted, “[N]ow it’s time—however belatedly—to reconsider Mexican artists’ role in the international scheme of Modern Art, and Rivera is a good place to start.” In the Austin Chronicle, Gerald E. McLeod affirmed that the Houston exhibit “takes the artist’s varied talent out of the shadow of his great murals and reveals the full range of his remarkable career.”
One reason for the slow development in critical esteem is that Rivera’s masterworks are universally considered his murals, few examples of which exist outside of Mexico and which, by their very nature, can’t travel to exhibits around the world so that viewers, critics or the general public, can see and appreciate them. Rivera’s easel paintings have been given short shrift as representatives of his art—until, that is, such shows as A Retrospective, Cleveland’s Diego Rivera: Art and Revolution (1999), and now Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit. (I don’t count NGA’s The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera because it was a very small show and narrowly focused. In addition, by 2004, any reevaluation of Rivera’s significance had already been effected.) At the end of the 20th century, two important new biographies of the Mexican artist, Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (Knopf, 1998) and Diego Rivera by Pete Hamill (Harry N. Abrams, 1999), were issued in this country, helping to focus attention on his art. Another explanation for the reexamination was that by the turn of the 21st century, Mexico had finally moved past its revolutionary past (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost the majority in the Mexican congress in 1997 for the first time since its founding and lost the presidency in 2000), communism was largely dead (except for a few notable pockets), and the dawn of the age of industrialism was a distant memory. Rivera’s art could now be looked at for its aesthetics rather than its political and social commentary.
[I have deliberately elided over some of the more complex and problematic elements of the life and work of both Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo here. To have broached these topics, such as their embrace of Stalinism (notwithstanding a friendship with Trotsky), Rivera’s conflict with the Rockefellers over Man at the Crossroads, or Kahlo’s belief (despite later genealogical research to the contrary) that her father was a Jew, would have expanded this summary to twice its present length.