Detroit's Memorable Murals: Background information when reading Detroit City Is the Place to Be

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Detroit City Is the Place to Be

The Afterlife of an American Metropolis

by Mark Binelli

Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2012, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2013, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Detroit's Memorable Murals

Print Review

South Wall of muralsEven as Detroit City might be having a rejuvenation of sorts by attracting increasing numbers of artists, it is worth looking back to the Great Depression when a Mexican mural artist, Diego Rivera, created the city's most iconic art: the set of murals known as Detroit Industry.

Back in the early '30s Edsel Ford (son of Henry Ford) was an ardent supporter of the arts. When W.R. Valentiner, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, suggested he commission some art for the museum, Ford decided he would like to capture the spirit of the city's industry through a series of murals for the museum's garden court. Diego Rivera, a renowned Mexican muralist (and known Marxist) was commissioned to create murals for just two segments of the court but eventually the series grew to be a number of arresting murals created over the span of two years.

Once commissioned (for what would be $300,000 in today's monetary terms), Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo visited Detroit where Rivera drew much of his inspiration from Ford's thriving plant along the Rouge River. The complex covering over 15 million square feet, was the epitome of modern-day manufacturing, and had 120 miles (yes, miles!) of conveyor belts running through.

The Rivera Court with the Detroit Industry fresco cycleMany of Rivera's murals capture this industry in brilliant freeze frame – giant machines doing man's bidding, the tools of modern-day capitalism in full and vibrant display. Not all the murals were based on the car industry alone however; other industries including the pharmaceutical and chemical were also portrayed. Science and its vital place in society's progress are exemplified in the murals – for example, one depicts the importance of vaccination. Nude imagery is also present and this created controversy.

Also controversial was the commissioning of a Mexican national during the Great Depression – why wasn't an American given the job? Even worse, Rivera was a communist sympathizer.

Over time the murals done in fresco – paint over wet plaster – have endured as homage to the city's once-vibrant past. The Detroit Institute of Arts, which houses these murals, has undergone significant renovation and the murals continue to inspire its residents.

Perhaps fittingly they even serve as inspiration for the city's comeback. In fact, a popular Super Bowl Chrysler commercial starring native boy, Eminem, includes a vignette from these murals. Freeze the frame at 0:33. The symbolism is strong – the city, these murals tell us, can reinvent itself. It can be great again just as these murals show it to be.

Interesting Link: A photo gallery of Diego Rivera's Detroit murals.

Photographs from Detroit Institute of Arts

Article by Poornima Apte

This article was originally published in January 2013, and has been updated for the November 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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