Rivera and Kahlo in Detroit

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) says it all too well when introducing on its website the major exhibition it is hosting on the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, specifically that which were made immediately before, during and after their brief stay in the city.
It begins: “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were on explosive couple. He carried a pistol. She carried a flask. He romanticised Detroit. She rejected it. But what they shared was a belief in communism, a thirst for tequila and a passion for each other.”
The artists, two of the most important Mexican artists of the twentieth century, married in 1929. He was 42 and she was 22. Despite the difference in age, their affection and respect for one another was as pure as true love can be.
Yes they argued, yes they both cheated, but they couldn’t escape one another, as tumultuous as their relationship was. They divorced and remarried, their bond broken by Kahlo’s premature death at the age of 47.
He later wrote in his autobiography: “July 13th, 1954 was the most tragic day of my life. I had lost my beloved Frida forever. To late now I realised that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”
The DIA exhibition looks at the impact the couple’s one-year sojourn in Detroit had on their respective works of art, which the museum says was an experience that was respectively “pivotal”.
Needless to say, the show is organised around Rivera’s iconic, fresco-inspired murals of the city. Detroit Industry (1932-33), which have not been on show for close to 30 years – and recently declared a national Historic Landmark in 2014 – is in its totality an epic work of art.
“Rivera considered Detroit Industry to be his finest mural cycle, distilling on walls of our museum the height of his career,” commented Mark Rosenthal, organiser of the exhibition and adjunct curator of contemporary art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“Although the lives of these two painters have been exhaustively examined, the location of their sojourn to the city of Detroit has not yet been given significant focus as representing a turning point in their evolutions—this exhibition changes that.”
As he worked on the 27 panels that would make up Detroit Industry, “a synthesis between Mexico’s spiritual values and United States industrial might”, Kahlo meanwhile, still relatively unknown, in her misery, began to explore a more personal style that laid bare her emotional turmoil.
It was in Detroit where she painted what many consider to be her first masterpiece, Henry Ford Hospital. Kahlo, who had in 1925 been involved in an accident – the bus she was in collided with a trolley car resulting in serious injuries which impacted on her ability to have children – miscarried during her stay here.
The vivid, surreal work, which was painted on a sheet of metal, graphically depicts the sadness of her loss and her disquiet regarding Detroit. The approach is indicative of a style that she would become famous for – deeply symbolic and personal. As she once said: “I never painted dreams: I painted my own reality.”
A total of 65 works have been gathered for the exhibition, offering a robust presentation of how differently the experience of Detroit impacted on both artists as individuals and as artists.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts runs until July 12th, 2015.
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