Canadian Consulting Engineer


March 1, 2001
By Rosalind Cairncross, P. Eng.

All that's missing from Diego Riviera's giant frescoes in the Detroit Institute of Arts is the clang and squeal of the assembly line, the roar of the blast furnace, the grunts of the workers. The stur...

All that’s missing from Diego Riviera’s giant frescoes in the Detroit Institute of Arts is the clang and squeal of the assembly line, the roar of the blast furnace, the grunts of the workers. The sturdy shapes of the machines, the sturdy limbs of the men, the transformative power of the smelting process, the merciless motion of assembly line, are choreographed into the grand canvas of Riviera’s monumental work depicting the automobile and other industries in Detroit circa 1930. The frescoes that cover the walls of the institute’s garden court are a song of praise and a cautionary tale about technology.

In our era, when impressions of the nature of work and of technology are not common themes in graphic art, the frescoes are a reminder of another time. The artist was fascinated by the technology of the industrial revolution, but also acutely aware of its consequences for people. According to the institute’s biographical notes, he combined a “love of industrial design and admiration for North American engineering with his philosophical views about industry’s positive and negative contributions to society.”

Diega Riviera was born in Mexico in 1886. He studied under the leading artists of the day in Mexico City at the Academy of San Carlo, where draftsmanship, classical form and the scientific investigation of nature were emphasized. After years of study and travel in Europe, he returned to Mexico, dreaming of producing art for the new revolutionary government. As life would have it, the socialist artist’s work often ended up in the bastions of capitalism. Dr. Valentiner, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts at the time, found him working in one such bastion, the Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange.

Valentiner proposed that Riviera do two large frescoes for the institute. Eventually, the artist would persuade the museum to let him cover all four walls of its garden court. Riviera’s friend, Edsel Ford, grandson of the legendary Henry Ford, offered to fund the project. Riviera was given a free hand, with no more instruction than that the project should relate to the history of Detroit and the development of industry.

The artist set to work by touring Ford’s Rouge industrial complex, and other industrial sites in Detroit. What he saw fascinated him. The natural world offered ores from its geological strata; the ingenuity of engineers, managers and workers used the industrial process to transform these materials into “modern, self-propelled machines.” In his view of the world, the industrial process was one of many processes, natural and technical. The engineer-as-artist was the inventor and the designer of the technical process.

Riviera was an idealist and his strong socialist opinions influenced his work. He hoped that technology would free the working classes from heavy labour and produce enough goods for all. He was, however, also a realist. Mary Ann Wilkinson is the current curator of the Detroit Industry frescoes. She says that Riviera remained ambivalent about technology despite his love of machines: “He was both fascinated and distrustful of the notion of progress. Though fascinated by the wonderful shapes and lines of the process, he was philosophically doubtful. In the frescoes, workers are like automatons, and sometimes machines anthropomorphize into superbeings.”

Riviera had reason to be doubtful. In the Detroit Industry panels, the factory workers are not freed from menial and strenuous tasks. The men are tethered to the assembly line as surely as the car parts upon which they are working.

The frescoes must, of course, be seen in the context of their times, immediately after the Depression. Wilkinson explains that in order to provide work for artists, government programs commissioned them to express favoured images of the time. They painted scenes from American life and the “glories of technology.” It was an era when industry was celebrated as a force for making people’s lives better. Now we realize that technology can make life both better and worse. We remain fascinated, but in a different way. As Wilkinson puts it, “There is no romance of the assembly line, … technology is not seen as making people’s lives better. Almost the opposite, modern technology is what keeps us from being human.”

Riviera’s view of the universe, of nature, of human and industrial relations, and his ambivalence to technology, is visible in his work. The main panels of the north and south walls teem with detail, social, technical, philosophical and artistic.

On the north wall, red and black hands hold the contribution of nature: iron ore and coal. The constructive and destructive contributions of modern science and technology are depicted and contrasted. A child is being vaccinated with serum manufactured in a laboratory. Poison gas is being produced in another section of the panel. This theme continues on the west wall, which features passengers and warplanes.

The south wall includes representations of white and oriental peoples, and the natural materials, limestone and sand, part of the geology of the Detroit area. Minor panels feature other industrial activities of the city: pharmaceuticals, chemical manufacture. The main panel is an intricate collage showing the unit operations required for the production of an automobile. At the end of the assembly line, the final product is a 1932 Ford V8.

Riviera incorporated a number of contemporary and significant figures in the work. He used his own image to represent the figure of a worker, and a composite image of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison to represent an engineer. The image of the nurse is said to be that of the actress, Jean Harlow. William Valentiner, the director of the institute, and Edsel Ford also appear.

The 27 panels of the Detroit Industry frescoes took Riviera eight months to produce using a demanding technique of painting on wet plaster. When they were unveiled to the public, controversy erupted. Some objected to the art, and others to the artist. Some did not consider the work art at all. According to Wilkinson, painting the insides of car factories was not considered art in some quarters. Others thought that some of the figures were overly authoritarian. Still others thought they were blasphemous or pornographic.

The museum was forced to defend the work. They did so with the help of its staff, the public and Edsel Ford. Their combined efforts saved the frescoes, but the art would be endangered by other forces over time. In the bleak period following the Depression, the city of Detroit ran out of money and closed the museum for a while. It reopened during the mid-1930s. Later, McCarthyism would sweep the land and the paintings would be condemned as socialist propaganda, again threatened because of Riviera’s political views. Once more, the murals were saved by community petition.

Despite the efforts of their detractors, the frescoes remain embossed onto the museum’s walls in brilliant colour: a brooding, thoughtful and thought-provoking tribute to human ingenuity and ability, and a word of caution about having an indiscriminate faith in technology.

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng., is contributing editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer.


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