Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit
El Beso by Florence Arquin
El Beso by Florence Arquin

From March 15, 2015 through July 12, 2015, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) will feature an exhibit which is creating immense excitement throughout the region. The exhibit, called “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit”, will examine the interplay between Rivera, Kahlo, and Detroit.

Spouses, Rivera and Kahlo spent less than a year (April 1932 through March 1933) in Detroit—a pivotal year though it was. Rivera, a vocal and well-known communist, was commissioned by Henry Ford (anyone else notice the irony?) and William Valentiner, then-director of the DIA, to paint the famous murals which now adorn four walls at the heart of the museum. The only restriction placed on Rivera’s murals was that they must relate to the history of Detroit and its industry.  The murals, as well as the artist, were intensely controversial among high-society Detroiters. Just think—a communist, opposed to religion, painted images of a factory in the middle of a cultural institution. The murals were nearly whitewashed.

While Rivera held a deep appreciation of Detroit and the worker rebellion which took place in the city, Kahlo despised Detroit. She wrote in 1932 about Detroit’s influencers: “High society here turns me off and I feel a bit of rage against all these rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery.” (Citation)

Henry Ford Hospital by Frida Kahlo
Henry Ford Hospital by Frida Kahlo

While in her late teens, Kahlo experienced nearly-mortal injuries from a bus accident. As a result of the accident, her spine was shattered, numerous bones were broken, and a pole pierced her pelvis. Years later, while in Detroit and partly as a result of her injuries, Kahlo experienced a miscarriage—one of three—which was devastating to a woman who so badly wanted children. During the same year in Detroit, her mother died.

Kahlo painted her truth. She used art to process the emotional trauma she experienced, and to cope with her pain. Because she experienced ongoing difficulty with her spine following the accident, she often painted while lying in bed—a special easel was fashioned which allowed her to do so. Some of her most important work was produced in Detroit.

The exhibit at the DIA is special because it allows us to peek inside the private lives of Rivera and Kahlo, pivotal artists who left their mark on the city. This is a unique opportunity to gain additional understanding of the personal experiences and views behind the making of works of art. And Detroit is excited. Restaurants are creating special menus and the Michigan Opera Theatre is presenting an opera called FRIDA. There are themed lectures, film presentations, and a host of additional programming.

Do you plan to visit the DIA exhibit? What other events seem interesting to you?

Kahlo overlooking Rivera's murals (courtesy of the DIA archives)
Kahlo overlooking Rivera’s murals (courtesy of the DIA archives)

Curious about Rivera and Kahlo? Recommended reading:

Detroit was muse to legendary artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (The Detroit News)

Iconic Diego Rivera murals at DIA named National Historic Landmark (Detroit Free Press)

Frida Kahlo biography

Diego Rivera biography

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Hi, I'm Shannon and I'm proud to be from Michigan. Some things I enjoy: Cooking, craft beer, most kinds of music, travel, learning things, tattoos, driving, being on boats, water in general, being out of my comfort zone, history not printed in books (the real stories...), cats and dogs, imperfection, girls and boys, live (loud) rock 'n' roll shows, deep voices, smart people, sarcasm, dry wit, consideration, thunder, nerdiness, trying to explain complicated concepts in digestible ways, bourbon, stream-of-consciousness writing, Ford trucks from the 80s, people with useful skills, the color blue.