It used to be called the Garden Court, this space at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Two men, a capitalist and a Marxist, Edsel Ford and Diego Rivera, tooled the gears of a name change in 1933. That year, after eleven months of work, Rivera finished the Ford-commissioned piece entitled Detroit Industry. Even as I admire Rivera’s fresco cycle, I wonder if we will ever get back to the garden.
Walk through the Farnsworth entrance of the DIA Beaux-Arts building, down a promenade and up the stairs, through the black wisteria gate and into Rivera court – originally 68 feet long, 49 feet wide, its height intensified by the natural light coming through the ceiling. Twenty-seven panels make up the murals titled Detroit Industry, some running 45’ wide by 17’ high, others only about 6’ x 2’. The scale does more than shrink the viewer; it puts him in motion. People step into a wall and back away, sit and stand and pirouette to its unheard music.
Even as one moves to experience the whole, the motion of work is captured in the largest panels. My eyes found their only rest in this motion when I was a child. The east wall, the first wall visible upon entering the court, troubled me. A fetus is underground, roots growing outward from what looks like a womb. Above that, on either side, sit two round-bodied topless women.
It was far easier to look at the largest panel of the north wall. Here, men on the line at an automobile factory push and pull as far into the painting as the eye can see. This was a very right and good rendering of work, and I liked the colors and the patterns. That was the best I could do with the Rivera court at eight years old.
Revisiting the mural, I understand why my eyes settled on this picture of manufacturing. Rivera’s artistry draws you in, and the image of hard work, done together, keeps you there. It is still stirring, and yet Rivera’s work speaks to me differently now.
As I tried to take it all in with a friend last year, we were overwhelmed by the sense of the machines being greater, god-like, in this panel. Its themes are echoed in the major panel opposite, on the south wall. And as I returned to consider this idea further, and explored the excellent multimedia resource available both at the museum and online, that sense was reinforced.
Rivera drew connections between science, manufacturing, and the gods of the ancient cultures of Latin and South America. The gods were believed to be the bearers of things like sun and rain, sometimes to the benefit of the worshipers and other times to their destruction. Rivera was an atheist, and in this piece, he replaces the gods with Industry and Technology. Industry and Technology produce in the panels, but to what end? And what is sacrificed?
The smaller panels give some clues as to the possible outputs of these modern gods. On the north wall, cells are built up, as above them a child is vaccinated. In perfect symmetry, at the other end of this wall, cells are destroyed; as above them poison gas is manufactured. On the west wall, natural images of the dove and the hawk are topped by passenger and war planes.
In the ancient mind, the gods would be credited with both the giving and the taking away, as the rains produce growth and flooding or the sun produces warmth and drought. Here, Industry and Technology produce, but it is the people wielding the power, and they will receive the credit or the blame.
But while Rivera escapes blaming or crediting the gods, the demands of Industry and Technology seem familiar. Sacrifice is necessary. The great stamping press, according to the multimedia presentation, visually alludes to Coatlique, an Aztec goddess to whom humans were sacrificed. Here, no blood is shed, just sweat and steel. Perhaps this would be seen as a noble endeavor seventy-seven years ago, but today, I am not certain. Industry has taken her share.
The workers have given energy and time. Some are cast aside, with area unemployment reported around fifteen percent. City numbers have been reported as closer to thirty. The other natural resources have been largely non-renewable, and corporations and investors have taken a hit as people have less interest in this kind of buying, which leads to fewer workers, which leads to fewer viable consumers. This is a problem, as Industry’s products demand consumers, and the power and wealth she confers demands more consumers.
Industry produces: sometimes to health and prosperity, and other times to destruction. Regardless, suggests the murals, Industry rolls on. But, I wonder, are we the consumers or the consumed? Can we be both without eventually devouring ourselves?
If Rivera were alive and interested in painting an update, would he be able to envision the east wall the same way? Would he see us as a fertile place? Perhaps he would still point to the earth as the root of all human endeavor, as it says in the DIA’s materials. Maybe, as a Marxist, he would take it as an opportunity to point to some of the failures of capitalism.
But time has revealed his system also has its flaws – as does any human system.
The author wishes to thank the Brandon Township librarians for their assistance in researching this piece. Librarians rock!