In Detroit's Rivera And Kahlo Exhibit, A Portrait Of A Resilient City
DON GONYEA, HOST:
What a difference a year makes. That's what folks in Detroit were thinking this weekend as their beloved Detroit Institute of Arts - or DIA - buzzed with excitement over a new exhibit. Visitor Gabriela Ramirez Ariano (ph) expressed relief that the museum was still open.
GABRIELA RAMIREZ ARIANO: Every time I kept hearing about, oh, the DIA might be gone I was like, oh, my gosh, what are they going to do with the murals and so much history?
GONYEA: The DIA spent much of the last year and the year before that under threat as its owner - the city of Detroit - looked for ways to emerge from bankruptcy. Finally, last November, a grand bargain was struck. Foundations, private donors and the state of Michigan together raised more $800 million to help rescue public employee pensions. In return, ownership of the DIA was transferred to a trust, thereby securing its future. The museum's new exhibit is "Diego Rivera And Frida Kahlo In Detroit." At its heart are Rivera's Detroit industry murals. Grand in scope and scale, they celebrate Detroit's auto factories and depict a kind of workers utopia - men of all races side-by-side on an assembly line. Commissioned by Henry Ford's son, Edsel, the murals offer incredible detail.
GRAHAM BEAL: As one engineer of the time remarked that Rivera had got two miles of an assembly line into two walls, and it was completely coherent.
GONYEA: That's Graham Beal, director of the DIA. I spoke with him about what this exhibit means for the museum and for the city as a whole.
BEAL: Well, it's taken on a kind of special significance in a way. Until recently, when you looked at the Rivera murals, you saw a Detroit of the past, a sort of somehow that it was elegiac. But things have shifted so much in the past few months even. Now you can see the murals as something that is now looking to the future as well as looking to the past, and that all of the old engineering, all the know-how, all the entrepreneurial spirit is somehow in effect again.
GONYEA: So let's go back to Diego and Frida. I hope it's OK if I refer to them by their first names.
BEAL: We all do.
GONYEA: I loved the first line of the museum's own description of this exhibit. Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo were an explosive couple. He carried a pistol; she carried a flask. He romanticized Detroit; she rejected it. That's a pretty good starting-off point. So tell me about their time in Detroit.
BEAL: Well, Rivera was invited here as one of the world's most famous artists to paint some murals in the really relatively new cultural palace of the Detroit Institute of Arts. And with him came his new wife. They had been married two years, and she was completely unknown. So you have this artist coming here who sees the Rouge plant and the other auto plants, and he just falls in love with them. And he loves all of this engineering and all this technology, even though he's a Mexican communist who's not supposed to relate to anything so obviously capitalist.
GONYEA: And the Rouge plant that you mention is the Ford Motor Company Rouge assembly plant - the largest manufacturing facility in the world.
BEAL: Yes, and a very new, huge industrial plant. And then you had with him diminutive figure, completely unknown, unformed, in a way, as an artist who loathed the U.S., didn't like Detroit at all, came and went as much as she could and tragically having to go back to Mexico when her mother died. So Rivera was here most of the time working on this enormous project, and Frida was here as an unformed artist. She went through the tragic loss of a pregnancy. She, of course, had this terrible accident involving a tram when she was 15 years old. But it was through this ghastly experience that you see the emergence of Frida as a signature artist. You see her grasping the fact that she is going to be her own subject matter, something, in fact, that Rivera urged her to do as well. And so almost like out of a chrysalis, the recognizable Frida Kahlo arrives because of the pain and everything she went through in Detroit.
GONYEA: Can you give me some sense of the most notable works of hers that people would be able to see?
BEAL: Well, we have, in the way, the center of the exhibition is the small painting "The Henry Ford Hospital" where she rather gruesomely shows the fact that she lost a fetus. And she shows herself lying in this bed in a very desolate urban landscape with the Rouge plant in the background. So she puts herself in pain in the middle of an unpleasant landscape. And she writes along the bottom of the bed Henry Ford Hospital, which somehow links her accident with the Ford company, if you see what I mean.
GONYEA: The Detroit industry murals - his work - they served as a backdrop literally in the fight to save the museum during Detroit's time in bankruptcy. I'm wondering what does it mean for you to have an exhibit essentially revolve now around this work given what the past few years have been like?
BEAL: Well, it's an accident of timing really. We didn't know about the bankruptcy when we started working on this exhibition in earnest. And we certainly didn't know how long it was going to last, but it really does seem appropriate. It does seem like a very effective exclamation mark that the DIA once again symbolizes the energy and creativity of Detroit. And that can be seen in the murals, which, you know, let's face it, were never going to leave that building whatever happened.
GONYEA: That's Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum's new exhibit called "Diego Rivera And Frida Kahlo In Detroit" runs through July.
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