Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Postcards from Detroit

In 1932, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was commissioned to create a series of murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The murals were commissioned by the museum director and Edsel Ford, the only son of Henry Ford and president of Ford Motor Company. The murals known as The Detroit Industry Murals, are comprised of 27 frescoes depicting a variety of images of the production of an automobile at the River Rouge Factory Complex. Although an avowed Marxist, Rivera had a fascination with the industrial complexes of capitalism. He was particularly interested in places like the River Rouge Factory where the entire process of producing a car took place. Detroit, at the height of the Depression and the automobile revolution, controlled everything that went into producing cars. A factory like the Rouge not only housed every part of production but also the railway system to ship supplies in and out and ultimately, ship finished cars to consumers.

I don't remember if it was in reading his autobiography, My Art, My Life, or in some other article about the murals but if I recall correctly, Rivera spent three months at the Rouge complex observing the factory and its workers and machinery. He also had the assistance of the factory's photographer in documenting the factory. He would use those photographs as part of his preparation for the murals. The murals were finished in record time; eight months working his assistants and himself to almost to death. At one point, his assistants protested the poor wages and working conditions much like their brethren protesting the working conditions in factories around the country (when they could find a job that was).

What's interesting about the murals is the depiction of multiple themes of industrialization and industry. The entire production of a car is depicted, including Ford's famous V8 engine and the line workers (check out the DIA's website for an amazing interactive online exhibit; my photos are a little sad). The workers seem one with the machines (very Marxist but also very capitalist at the same time). He also depicts images of chemical manufacturing, showing how this type of science can be used to both harm (images of poison gas) and to heal (images depicting the creation of vaccines). He also weaves in references to an Aztec goddess (important in Aztec creation mythology) and to figures Rivera called the "Four Races" that line the top of each of the walls. There's a tremendous amount of symbolism and meaning within the murals; I'm sure you can find other resources out there to explain them better than I can. The murals were given status as a National Historic Landmark in 2014.

During my recent vacation, I spent part of an afternoon at the DIA viewing the murals again and visiting some other works within the collection. I have fond childhood memories of the DIA, mostly because of the suits of armor that line the Great Hall that leads into Rivera Court where the murals live. I can't say that I really remember the murals from these childhood visits but I know that we walked through that area to get to other parts of the museum my dad was fond of; Medieval and Renaissance art. I've visited a few times as an adult and am always a bit awestruck standing in front of the murals. There's a lot to see and take in. My brother overheard a docent telling a little boy about Rivera's signature; it's teeny tiny compared to the size of the work. I had never noticed or even thought to look before. A nice little discovery on this visit.

Our stop at the museum came after an afternoon out and about in downtown Detroit with my aunt. She's my mother's younger sister and lives about a mile and a half from where they grew up in Southwest Detroit. In the late 80s when others were moving to the suburbs, she and her husband bought and restored a house in the Corktown neighborhood across from Tiger Stadium (sadly now gone but finally open as a park; we saw kids playing baseball there on this trip). I admire my aunt for lots of reasons but her dedication to Detroit is high on the list. She is a Detroiter; she has the kind of attachment and sense of place about her that I only wish to have. She supports Detroit and fights for it and defends it and criticizes it passionately. She doesn't sugarcoat Detroit; that would be naive and naive is not a word I would ever use to describe my aunt. Every time I've come to Detroit alone or with my brother as an adult, she makes sure to take us around on a tour of what's changed and what's going on. I've never asked her but I think it's her way of anchoring us to our true home. She made a comment about Detroit being our "home" on this trip and in some ways, she's right.

Detroit has been undergoing a fairly radical revitalization in the last few years. It seems that everyone has an interest in Detroit these days from the billionaires to the hipsters to the bougie wannabes looking for the next "It" place. Some great things have come out of this; I'm not going to pretend that seeing new buildings and restoration of historic landmarks and homes and of regular old homes and buildings isn't a great thing. However, and I think my aunt would agree, there's a fine line between revitalization and gentrification. I think certain pockets of Detroit are precariously skating that line. Detroit feels a bit schizophrenic or maybe like it's having an identity crisis.

Which brings me back to Diego Rivera and the murals. As I looked at the murals on this visit to the DIA, I got to thinking: what would Rivera paint today? How would he define Detroit industry right now? Would it be the intricate work of the watchmakers at Shinola or maybe the purveyors of Detroit Denim? Or maybe it is Dan Gilbert and his Quicken Loans empire? What about the breweries and distilleries around town? Could it be the sports complexes downtown or maybe the casinos that have taken over Greektown? Maybe it wouldn't be any of these things; maybe Rivera would be a graffiti artist or work in found objects or something else terribly urban and modern. I don't have an answer to this question but I've been thinking about it since Saturday. What is industry anymore?

I'm going to guess that it's not going to be the random beach that's taken over part of Campus Martius Park. Apparently this has been a summer thing since 2013 but this is the first time I've ever heard of it or seen it. It's a beach as brought to you by Ikea. Keep in mind that the Detroit River is not that far away but there is no water here. Just the sandy part of the beach and a grill and tables to enjoy the sun. It seems pretty popular and I guess if I worked downtown something like the beach might be a nice distraction. Not the stuff of murals but an oasis in an urban landscape.

My aunt, brother, and I embrace our Polish roots.

A Rock N Rye slurpee - delicious although we were on the hunt for the Vernor's slurpee but no luck.

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