Controversy raged around debut of Rivera's murals

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

It was March 21, 1933, when the public got its first look at Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, but the storm surrounding them was already raging.

"There were all kinds of objections," said Linda Bank Downs, author of "Diego Rivera: the Detroit Industry Murals," the authoritative work on the subject.

She ticks off the complaints:

"It was the height of the Depression, and a foreign artist was hired to paint the murals. Then there were nudes in it — and a laboratory with a child being vaccinated, painted in the style of a nativity scene. As for the upper classes," Downs added, "they didn't like the working classes invading their museum. They were offended by that."

Denounced as communistic, sacrilegious and anti-American, a councilman just four days after their inauguration introduced a resolution before the City Council demanding they be scrubbed off the walls (which wouldn't work with frescoes).

None of the city's three daily newspapers liked them. To the Detroit Times, they were an "enormity" that would hit visiting public "like a bolt." The Detroit News called them "foolishly vulgar" and, somewhat surprisingly, "a slander to Detroit workingmen," and called for their removal. The Detroit Free Press called them "decadent art, adding, "they cannot be taken seriously."

It all might have been sparked by one DIA volunteer publicist named George Pierrot, who would later become a fixture of Detroit TV with a long-running travel show.

As Downs explains it, the situation at the DIA in 1933 was dire on many fronts. Not only had City Council chopped the museum's budget by 90 percent since 1928, attendance had fallen way off as well.

Before Rivera finished painting, Edsel B. Ford — president of the city's Arts Commission and the man who paid for the murals — was desperate to gin up interest in the museum.

"George Pierrot and someone in Edsel Ford's office came up with the idea of doing more publicity," Downs said, who interviewed Pierrot shortly before his death. "In George's mind, that meant capitalizing on the controversy that was already brewing."

Pierrot invited religious leaders, including the head of the League of Catholic Women and the senior curate of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, who'd already denounced the murals' vaccination panel, to inspect them days before they were introduced to the public.

Their outraged reactions quickly made it into the newspapers. Other events conspired to hype the drama. An anonymous call to the museum from the conservative American Citizens League led to the Times headline, "Police Guard Rivera's Murals After Phoned Threat."

Art historian Hayden Herrera reports in her biography of Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, that factory workers also volunteered to stand guard, an offer that left Rivera, the ardent communist, "euphoric."

The arts community pushed back.

Architect Albert Kahn, also a member of the Arts Commission, wrote in The Detroit News the day after the March unveiling that "Detroit Industry" was "a great, powerful piece of art," one that "put Detroit on the map artistically."

Ordinary Detroiters voted with their feet. On the Sunday after the opening, the Times reported "10,000 Jam Art Institute to See Disputed Murals."

The most powerful man in the equation, Ford, kept quiet until April, when the Arts Commission voted unanimously to endorse the work.

"I admire Rivera's spirit," Ford reportedly said. "I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit."

Downs cites Rivera's biographer Bertram Wolfe, who wrote, "Feeble as those words were, they were a great help in saving the paintings." By the time Royal Oak's conservative radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin jumped on the anti-murals bandwagon, Downs says, the controversy was already leaking air.

Cosmopolitan New York would not be so lucky. A year later, when Rivera painted an unexpected image of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin into his Rockefeller Center mural, "Man at the Crossroads," building management smashed the fresco and carted the rubble away.