Friday, September 3, 2021

Rivera Court, Detroit Institute of Arts

In 1932-1933 Diego Rivera executed a series of frescoes within a covered courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He once said that it was his greatest work, and many others have agreed. 

The paintings were commissioned by William Valentiner, director of the DIA and considered something of a visionary, and paid for by Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s son and heir. The only stipulation they made was that the murals address the history of industry in Detroit.

The work is called Detroit Industry. It was based on months of preparatory work that Rivera carried out in 1932, touring Ford plants, making sketches, and taking photographs. This was in the absolute depths of the Depression; the month when the paintings were unveiled saw the highest unemployment rate ever recorded in the US. But Rivera chose to focus entirely on men at work.

What I like best about these works is that they can be appreciated at several scales: the overall effect of the whole courtyard is amazing.

The big paintings are very impressive as compositions.

The individual scenes are delightful.

And some of the details of the brush work and so on are also very fine. Rivera had the help of assistants on this project, but they only did the plastering and preparation; he did all the painting himself.

An amusing note is that while Rivera was a communist and is said to have anguished over whether to take Ford's money, he was not particularly generous with his own assistants.

According to Graham W.J. Beal, DIA director from 1999 to 2015, Rivera had four main assistants, who were paid $12 a week, and other assistants worked for free—ironic considering that Henry Ford was paying $5 a day to the workers Rivera was portraying in his murals. One of Rivera’s main assistants was Ernest Halberstadt. Beal writes: “Eventually, Halberstadt got tired of having no soles on his shoes and asked Rivera for $18 a week, a $6 raise. When Rivera refused, Halberstadt threatened to walk up and down in front of the museum saying that the artist was ‘unfair to labor.’ Rivera gave him the $18, but he didn’t speak to Halberstadt for a long time after that.”

When the murals were first unveiled many people hated them, calling them "coarse" and "vulgar." A movement to have them removed was begun. But it has long been rumored that Ford and Valentiner may have secretly encouraged this movement to drum up publicity, since it absolutely did: the louder the cries for getting rid of the paintings, the bigger the crowds. Ford himself waited for a whole month before announcing that he had no intention of removing them, by which point they were already famous. 

As they have remained ever since.

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