Labor of love

New DIA exhibit traces relationship of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 24, 2015

 This detail of fighter planes from the aviation portion of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals can be seen on the west wall.

This detail of fighter planes from the aviation portion of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals can be seen on the west wall.

Images courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts; © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


DETROIT — Theirs was a tempestuous love story of two artistic greats who spent a pivotal year of their lives here, so it’s only fitting that the Detroit Institute of Arts is now hosting “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit.”

On display through July 12, the exhibition explores the period from April 1932 to March 1933, when Rivera created his signature “Detroit Industry” murals on the walls of the relatively new DIA, in what was then a garden courtyard. At the time, Rivera was an established artist, while Kahlo was still relatively unknown.

DIA Director Graham Beal said the idea for this exhibition came to him many years ago, but a series of developments and challenges — including Detroit’s bankruptcy and the possibility of museum artworks being auctioned off to pay for city debts — put it on hold until now.

Visitors will see 38 works by Rivera — which showcase his interest in political issues and the lives of workers — and 26 pieces by Kahlo, who began to develop her signature style while in Detroit. Political and social themes are apparent in Kahlo’s work, but there are personal elements, as well, and she often used folk art motifs to celebrate Mexico’s heritage and culture.

One of the highlights is a showing of Rivera’s preparatory drawings for the murals. Bank of America, one of the exhibition’s sponsors, paid for the preservation, restoration and documentation of these drawings. The large, to-scale drawings are extremely delicate and haven’t been shown in nearly 30 years. DIA Adjunct Curator Mark Rosenthal, who curated “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” called this a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” for art lovers.

“We support the arts and culture globally because the arts and culture enrich the communities we serve,” said Matt Elliott, Michigan market president of Bank of America.

Beal said Rivera and Kahlo were “two extraordinary, very different, utterly compelling human beings,” and the exhibition looks at their lives and their art.

Rivera, a socialist, received strong support from wealthy patrons like Edsel Ford, of Grosse Pointe Shores — the son of Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford. Edsel Ford paid for the murals with his own money because the museum’s budget had been slashed by the Great Depression, which started in 1929.

There are some interesting parallels between the DIA then and now. When Rivera arrived, the city was in the midst of the Great Depression, and poverty was rampant.

“Things were bad in 1932,” Rosenthal said. “There was discussion of closing the museum and selling the collection.”

Grosse Pointe Farms resident Robert Hudson Tannahill was another patron of Rivera’s, and someone who contributed greatly to the DIA’s art collection.

When DIA Director William Valentiner invited Rivera to create a permanent artwork on the walls of the museum, it was considered a radical idea.

“It was a very daring thing for a museum to have done,” Rosenthal said.

Valentiner wanted an artist who represented the period to create the work. Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals have since become the most popular attraction at the museum and are considered by many — including Rivera himself — to be his crowning artistic achievement.

“The Mexican muralists were very important for American (art in the 1930s),” Beal said.

Because the museum’s walls clearly aren’t going anywhere, this exhibition can only be shown in Detroit.

“This is a human-interest story,” Beal said. “If you want to see it, you’re going to have to come to Detroit.”

The show looks at Rivera and Kahlo’s lives and careers leading up to, and following, their year in Detroit, providing context and dimension to the work they did here.

“We wanted to show who these artists were before they arrived in Detroit and who they were after,” Rosenthal said.

Visitors will find the audio tour and cards accompanying the artwork in English and Spanish. DIA Interpretive Planner Megan DiRienzo said this is the first time the museum has presented a completely bilingual tour. She said it was important for exhibition organizers to make it accessible. DiRienzo said the audio tour also features insights from experts in labor history, pregnancy law and the Mexican-American community.

“There’s an incredibly rich and robust narrative about these two artists,” she said.

Adding additional insights are letters that Rivera wrote, but never sent, during this period to Kahlo while she was recovering from illness in Mexico.

“It was fantastic,” said Rivera’s grandson, Juan Coronel Rivera, of the discovery of these letters, which detailed Rivera’s daily activities and thoughts. “We knew a lot of stuff that was going on (at that time), but we didn’t know it firsthand. It really explained to us the point of view of the artist.”

Organizers were able to use what they learned from the letters in this exhibition.

This is the last major exhibition under Beal’s leadership. In January, he announced his plans to retire from the DIA as of June 30, 2015, after nearly 16 years at the helm. During his tenure, the museum survived Detroit’s bankruptcy with its collection intact; won passage of a millage now paid by residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties; and saw the DIA through a massive renovation that completely revamped the way the museum presented its collection, a model that has since been studied and imitated by other museums.

“I came here to rethink how we present art to the general public and did so from a collection that is so strong, you can’t be accused of doing so from a position of weakness,” Beal said. He’s happy that the changes have resulted in strong public support for the museum, which has, in turn, expanded its outreach programs in the surrounding suburbs.

If Beal could retire with one piece from the DIA’s collection, he said one of his favorite artworks is the 1916 Henri Matisse painting “The Window.”

Beal is happy to be ending his DIA career with an exhibition that he’s wanted to see for many years, but he refuses to take credit for its execution, saying it was Rosenthal and DiRienzo who assembled it “very expertly.”

During the run of the exhibition, the DIA will be open until 10 p.m. Thursdays and, starting May 26, until 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. Tickets to the special exhibition are $14 for adults and $9 for youths ages 6-17 on Tuesdays through Fridays. They cost $19 for adults and remain $9 for ages 6-17 on Saturdays and Sundays. Advance reservations are strongly encouraged, as many time slots are already sold out. For more information, visit or call (313) 833-4005. For more information about related community programs, visit