In 1933, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) commissioned a series of murals by Mexican revolutionary painter Diego Rivera to depict American industry in Detroit.
Rivera travelled to the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn Michigan and spent 3 months touring the plants in the area, preparing hundreds of sketches. He also worked with the Ford Motor Company's photographer to produce a series of pictures that he could refer to when painting the mural. Apart from the sketching and photographic techniques, Rivera also worked with a number of assistants who helped him with the logistics of the whole operation.
The mural was paid for by the DIA and also with a generous grant from Edsel Ford himself of $20,000. Rivera worked 15-hour days to complete the project in 8 months. The murals are made up of 27 panels that depict industry at the Ford Motor Company and at other workplaces in Detroit. The city was famous not only for car manufacturing, but also steel, cement, ships, air-planes and tractors.
Rivera also depicted scientific advancements of the era in medicine and in chemistry. Rivera's goal for the mural series was to show human workers intertwined with the machines they work with.
The centrepiece of the mural is a worker manufacturing the famous Ford 1932 V8 engine. Also depicted in the murals are furnaces, foundries, conveyor belts, logistics and even inspections that might take place in a factory.
Also, the Aztec goddess Coatlicue - as a machine - that the workers are surrounding and some would say worshipping. That and the other reference to a modern, industrial nativity scene caused some controversy and the public outcry drew crowds to the DIA, which they were grateful for. Rivera chose to paint the mural because he was fascinated with the working conditions of factory workers. His commission also took place during the Great Depression and he witnessed some of the unrest at the factories where workers were killed in strikes.
The Detroit Industry Murals is considered one of Rivera's greatest works and showed not only his dedication as a painter but also his interest in modern industrial culture in the United States. The Detroit Industry Murals are located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. They were given National Historic Landmark status in 2014.
A browse through these classical artworks makes it immediately clear as to why Diego Rivera has become accepted as the finest Mexican artist from the 20th century. Additional to his considerable artistic talents were his connection to the peoples of his nation, representing them in positive, compassionate ways and also continuing to draw attention to their plight whilst others had turned their backs.
The artist's success in the USA was always tinged with complexities around that country's political outlook which massively contrasted against his own. It led to conflict on occasion but his talents ultimately overcame these issues, whilst other artists continually took his side and offered him considerable support.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.