On December 8th, 1886 the great muralist Diego Maria de la Concepcion Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. We are thankful he chose to go by Diego Rivera, and we are even more thankful for his artistic legacy, by any name.
Among his greatest works are a series of murals commissioned in 1932 and 33 for the Detroit Institute of Arts titled Detroit Industry. The larger than life murals have led a tumultuous existence there — in many ways analogous to the upheavals of the Motor City itself. Condemned, insulted, reviled and threatened with annihilation, the works survived through the decades, but are now as much at risk as the city. Diego’s work is at the mercy of bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. They are priceless to Detroiters, but no so to the city’s creditors.
In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, an era that marks one of the most oppressive times in American history, the murals were at risk over the artist’s Marxist roots. The DIA posted the following message at the entrance:
“Rivera’s politics and his publicity seeking are detestable. But let’s get the record straight on what he did here. He came from Mexico to Detroit, thought our mass production industries and our technology wonderful and very exciting, painted them as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. This came after the debunking twenties when our artists and writers found nothing worthwhile in America and worst of all in America was the Middle West.
Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city. If we are proud of this city’s achievements, we should be proud of these paintings and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today.”
Rivera himself said the following of his mission as an artist and activist:
“An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”
Happy Birthday Diego Maria de la Concepcion Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos. And thank you.
Detroit Industry (detail), South Wall, Detroit Institute of Arts
Amy Kerr Hardin