Detroit – April 2019 – Diego Rivera Murals

In 1932 famed artist Diego Rivera was commissioned by Edsel Ford and the Director of the Detroit Institute of Art Wilhelm Valentine to produce 27 fresco murals depicting the industry of Detroit, specifically the automotive industry.




The timing and subjects continue to this day to be controversial. Rivera had a socialist view towards society, while he was commissioned by one of the great capitalists of all time, the Ford family. In addition just before Rivera arrived there had been a protest at Ford by workers, who were fired upon with gunshots resulting in the deaths of six marchers.

The courtyard that contains the murals is oriented on a north-south-east-west orientation. Starting with the east wall (where the sun rises each day), there are symbolism of birth. A close look at the wider fresco shows a baby in the bulb of a plant. The two nudes hold grain and fruit, symbolizing a bountiful harvest of America, and show some of the earliest technology in agriculture.





The west wall, sunset, represents endings and last judgement. It shows both the good and bad of technology, as represented by airplanes that can transport people but also be used as an instrument of war.

The large narrow middle panel is tying together the agricultural south and industrial north, as well as the shipping industry present in Detroit to bring the two together.




The top panel of the north and south walls are known as the ‘four races’. The faces represent African, European, Asian and Native Americans, in a look of deities. Beneath this panel geological requirements for the production, associating it with the races above (which I am certain would be met with disdain today)

The panel on the upper right was the most controversial of all. It’s interpretation of a Renaissance view of Jesus’s birth, only the figures include actress Jean Harlow (making a second appearance) as the nurse and the Lindbergh baby as the infant. Most of Detroit religious community wanted the entire work destroyed because of this panel but Edsel and Wilhelm held firm.

The main panel on the north and south walls represent the production of a 1932 Ford V8.




As with the north wall, the south wall has a number of panels. The top center are figures holding raw materials used in the production of the automobile, continuing with the various races of mankind.

Below them are limestone, and various fossils used in glass manufacturing.

As with the north wall there are other smaller panels depicting other Detroit industry, as well as a continuation of the small monochrome panels of ‘a day in the life of the worker’.





A closer look at the north wall panel shows the workers with green skin, as a result of the formaldehyde used in the manufacturing process. It was in this type of symbolism that Rivera is showing what the workers ultimately have to pay to have jobs.




Ford Motors had long been ahead of the industry in employment of all races, and it is represented in the mural where the white and black workers are working for the common cause (capitalism, not for themselves).




The assembly of the chassis is coming together, with the steering columns and other components. Nearly every item had symbolism.




A notorious floor supervisor, who made life difficult for the workers was represented as a stern manager in this panel. This real life person was M.L. Bricke.





Also on this wall is a panel of the door manufacturing.




In this panel you see a number of visitors to the factory floor including religious leaders. The women in the brown plaid dress was done in the image of an actress of the time, Jean Harlow.




The small red car in the middle of this photo is the only fully assembled automobile in all of the 27 panels. Rivera was more interested in the process, rather than the result.





The stamping machine was chosen to represent the Aztec deity Coatlicue, a goddess of creation and war that required much human sacrifice. In this panel Rivera is clearly stating the workers have to sacrifice much for the company.




This panel on the west wall features the boss, who is an amalgamation of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.





In one of the ‘day in the life’ panels, it shows Henry Ford teaching the workers (including the famed ‘The Thinker’) how an engine works.

Note the engine is actually a dog, with the gear shift knob being his tail.




A close up of the west wall shows the aforementioned airplanes, as well as the shipping panel.




A close up of a north wall panel depicts insect like figures in gas masks making gas weapons. Given that this was completed less than 20 years after World War I where gas warfare became common, it is clearly a statement on the evil of such an en devour.





With an accurate rendering of the Rouge Factory powerhouse, it is a symbol that the worker too has some level of power.





River even worked himself into the piece. He is the worker in the bowler hat.

While his spouse Freida Kahlo assisted him in the drawings to prepare for the commission, Rivera did all of the painting. He was known as a task master who overworked his underpaid assistants, and eventually drove Freida away as well, but for this series of murals Rivera was at his finest artistically.








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