‘Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit’ exhibit explores a pivotal period in both artists’ lives

freida-and-diego-wedding-portrait-1931No matter how frustrating life can get in the Motor City, the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of those places that transcends its surroundings and makes you appreciate where you live. And no part of the DIA is more awe-inspiring than Rivera Court, home of Diego Rivera’s legendary mural, Detroit Industry, which The New York Times recently said is “probably as close as this country gets to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

So if you’re anywhere near Detroit in the next month, don’t miss the exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, which runs through July 12.

There’s been plenty written about the timing of this exhibit, coming so soon after the fate of the DIA hung in the balance during Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing. Suffice it to say this incredible exhibit is vindication for the museum’s preservation.

Upon entering, visitors are offered a Walkman-style pod with headphones. You can use this to punch in numbers displayed at various displays, bringing additional back story and context to each painting or sketch and offering commentary from curators and academic experts. It’s the kind of rich multimedia experience that is a hallmark of DIA Director Graham Beal’s distinguished tenure. Even if it sometimes feels like yet another distraction in this digital era of constant distraction — a gallery full of people fully absorbed in technology and oblivious to one another — it adds immeasurably to the experience, turning what would otherwise be simply an exhibit of magnificent art into an engrossing storytime for grownups.

And what a story it is. Rivera and Kahlo, his much younger wife who was pregnant at the time, arrived in 1932 in a Detroit besieged by the Great Depression. The auto industry that he would depict in heroic, idealized but also ambivalent terms in his frescoes was slashing jobs and pay and operating at a fraction of its capacity.

The Mexican artists had a deep reverence for working people. Rivera was famously a member of the Mexican Communist party who was awed by the technology he found here, and he was offered $20,000 (about $250,000 in today’s money) by Edsel Ford, then the president of Ford Motor Co. Kahlo was far less enchanted by technology or Detroit, held fast to traditional Mexican culture and dress, and had yet to make a name for herself as a serious artist.

257Detroit-Industry-east-wall-detail-infant-in-the-bulb-of-a-plantThat would change for Kahlo during her stay in Detroit. There are several black-and-white silent videos in the exhibit in which she is shown painting at an easel in the courtyard as her husband works feverishly on the walls behind her. It was during her stay, of course, that she suffered a painful and nearly fatal miscarriage. This event inspired Kahlo to create many brilliant works of art — “Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry to canvas as Frida did in Detroit,” Beal tells exhibit goers via headphones — and it changed Rivera’s plans for a key fresco panel in Detroit Industry.

The contradictions and surprising symmetries between Rivera’s left-wing politics and those of his capitalist patrons are fascinating and are explored in surprising depth. Also deserving praise are the color schemes painted on the gallery walls, with sunny lemon yellows and bright green devoted to works the artists created in Mexico before and after coming north and more industrial grays and reds forming the backdrop for the work each produced during their 11-month stay. It reminded me of the vibrant colors the DIA used to great effect to display the works of Vincent Van Gogh during that exhibition in 2000.

Highly recommended.

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Rivera Court mural photo by paula soler-moya

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