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Linda Bank Downs worked as a docent at the Detroit Institute of the Arts in 1978, but whenever she led tours by Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, which filled an inner courtyard of the museum, she realized she had nothing to say.
“For the longest time those murals were largely ignored,” Downs recalls. “The Rivera court was the smoking room of the museum, so the walls were covered with nicotine.” The Institute had one dinky pamphlet about the murals, written in the ’50s. And about Rivera himself, “there were very few books in English.”
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So she decided to do some digging. She found the assistants who, in 1931 and 1932, had worked on his frescoes. “They were just happy to get through the Depression,” Downs says. “When Rivera left, the registrar of the museum just took that file and closed it and literally did not open it again until I came to him….It was a painful period to live through, and I think people just didn’t want to think about it anymore.”
But they did. Members of the museum’s staff turned up slides of Rivera working on the murals. And they found—rolled up in the basement of the museum, covered in dust—huge, flamboyant drawings Rivera had made as prototypes for his work. This month, some 22 years later, Downs—who works as the head of education at the National Gallery of Art—has published a book, Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals, which fleshes out a detailed analysis and colorful presentation of the paintings and drawings Edsel Ford commissioned from the maestro.
Despite Rivera’s socialist leanings—not to mention his participation in union protests in Detroit that culminated in bloodshed—he worked well with the automobile baron. His frescoes glorify Ford’s assembly lines: workers making chassis and gear boxes, other machinery filling the space between management and the workers. “Detroit is all about the automobile industry, and everyone goes to see the murals—from people who work on the line to engineers to auto execs,” Downs says. “The murals are used as a means to recruit new executives to the company. The murals have been used in the past to recruit members of the union, too.”—Robin Bingham