Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo – The Year in Detroit

by Lisa Beard



On April 21, 1932, Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, one of the art world’s most famous power couples, arrived in Detroit. The renowned Mexican artist Rivera was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts then director, W. R. Valintiner, to create what became Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals.


The project was funded by Edsel Ford of Ford Motor Company, from his own personal funds. While the couple’s stay in Detroit was less than a year, their impact would be long-lasting and legendary. Diego, created in Detroit, what he considered to be his masterpiece (the murals). Upon leaving Detroit, Frida was an unknown artist at the time, but soon after transformed into a powerhouse artist whose art, life and persona has reached iconic status. Our very own Lisa Beard, contributing beauty writer for Haute Is had the chance to sit down with Linda Bank Downs, an expert on the Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals; and additionally, Sue Troia, the DIA’s Manager of Gallery Teaching – Department of Education for a more intimate look at Diego and Kahlo.

The Detroit Industry Murals consists of 27 panels portraying industry at Ford Motor Company, surrounding what is known as the Rivera Court in the DIA. They celebrate the Detroit auto industry, but there are also scenes of other industries such as agriculture, aviation and pharmaceuticals. These murals were considered one of Diego’s most successful and popular works. Sue Troia talks about their relevance today, “The murals still reflect what is happening to the auto companies; with things such as the relevance of the unions, you can look at those murals and see that a vision that Rivera had in 1932 is a vision that still exists today. It is a vision of a living wage, or workers working side by side to create something. There is also a cautionary tale in every part of the murals that says that industry is good, it will give us all these opportunities. But with good you have bad, with prosperity you have poverty, with the rich you have the poor, with pollution you have clear skies. There is always an opposite. That duality lives today; it’s in everything we do.”

“Detroit was the start of Frida Kahlo’s extraordinary artist career. In her home country, she painted popular Mexican imagery; but while she was here, she experienced personal tragedies including the loss of a pregnancy and the death of her mother, and became depressed. As of one of Diego’s assistants, Lucienne Bloch began spending more time with Frida, giving her the encouragement she needed. Lucienne’s friendship influenced her to paint herself in a more powerful way.   She completed two significant pieces: “Henry Ford Hospital” and   “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States”.



Linda Banks Downs:

“Rivera was working almost 24 hours a day and Frida was left alone. After she lost her child, and her mother was very ill, she went to Mexico. She was very,very depressed. And had it not been for Lucienne, I think she would have stayed in Mexico, because she befriended Frida and she really brought her back out of the depression she was in and helped her to see a bigger vision in her art. I think Lucienne really influenced her to take stock of herself as a serious artist”.



“Even Kahlo’s style made an impact on fashion. She loved to wear traditional costume.  Her style influenced Valentino’s 2015 Resort collection. In the 1960’s, there was the hippie movement, and an interest in wearing peasant dress and African dress and traditional dresses, many different cultures. Frida was really in the vanguard of doing that; she wore dresses from the Yucatan peninsula, Titiwantipec, and she wore the traditional jewelry that you can see on the Aztec sculptures…and she wore it proudly. That too, was something that caught on nationally and internationally around the world”.


Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo will forever be a part of Detroit’s history. Sue Troia elaborates on the greatest impact that they had on Detroit, “We will always have those murals and when you go through the exhibition, one of the things you feel is the grandness of these murals – the size, the scale, the overwhelming sense of awe. That is something that is only here. It is uniquely Detroit’s, and it will always be Detroit’s’ and our story. Rivera gave us a tremendous gift. He thought enough of Detroit and industry to come here and do this. I think that is a lasting imprint”.

The special exhibit is ending soon on July 12 at the DIA, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48202 and you certainly don’t want to miss it. Museum hours during this exhibit:


Tuesday and Wednesday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Thursday and Friday: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Images courtesy of:

http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Self-Portrait-on-Borderline-Frida-Kahlo.jpg; http://i.huffpost.com/gen/2714526/thumbs/o-HENRY-FORD-900.jpg?7 ; http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/03/16/image-248frieda-and-diego-rivera—frida-frieda-kahlo-_custom-db543016b9f74a72a53e732089284edc722b3c16-s800-c15.jpg; http://detroitartreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/edsel-b-ford-1932.jpg ; https://chuisloveletters.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/valentinor02.jpg ; http://ikifashion.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Valentino-Resort-2015.jpg


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