When architect Paul Cret, with input from soon-to-be director William Valentiner, designed the DIA, the central features were a great hall and a garden court; the latter adorned with a sprawling fountain and a wide array of potted plants. It was always the intention that murals would occupy the court's two main walls, and the architect envisioned some kind of Arcadian scene. When he heard who was going to do what to his beautiful court, he was furious and wrote a letter of wonderfully gentlemanly rage in protest.
Valentiner, a Rembrandt scholar, was a man of wide tastes, and he enthusiastically supported contemporary art. While in San Francisco in 1932, his friend tennis champion Helen Wills Moody introduced him to Diego Rivera, who was painting murals there. One featured the sportswoman as the dominant figure in an allegorical painting about Californian agriculture. Would Rivera consider painting murals in Detroit, Valentiner asked. He most certainly would, came the reply, and Edsel Ford agreed to pay for them. Rivera duly arrived with his wife, Frida Kalho, in April 1932 and got to work.
The eleven months the couple was here is the subject of our current big exhibition. Perhaps Valentiner was expecting something allegorical; if so, he too got something very different. Although a card-carrying Communist, Rivera was utterly enamored of Detroit's giant industrial plants. After a few weeks sketching and photographing, he showed Ford two presentation drawings, one for each main panel. Ford was so enthusiastic the commission was immediately expanded to all twenty-seven panels in the court. Rivera and his assistants got to work and, on March 21, 1933, the finished mural cycle was revealed to the public.
In the meantime, Kahlo, who was unshakable in her dislike of all things "Yankee," came and went between New York and Detroit. While here, she suffered the profound personal loss of a pregnancy that, it is not too much to say, became the catalyst for her art. She created five paintings in Detroit (three are in the current show). The first, a Detroit shop window, may contain some clue to her future, but it was the next one, following her pregnancy loss, that is pure Kahlo as we know her today. In Henry Ford Hospital, she brings together, as she did for the rest of her career, the modern and ancient Americas, the real and the fantastic.
In a way, it's hard to imagine two more different artistic characters. Rivera was outgoing, physically imposing, and at the height of his career, producing an enormous, realistic, artistically and philosophically complex mural cycle. The much smaller and unknown Kahlo, frail and in constant pain from an earlier traffic accident, found her voice with highly personal, often startlingly intimate images. He was constantly feted in Detroit, she came and went unheralded. Today, to the dismay of some, she overshadows him. His achievements inspired many, although few could match his compositional genius. Her art has more recently become influential, but in the end, she too is inimitable.
Graham W. J. Beal, Director