From April 1932 to March 1933, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo called Detroit their home. At the time, Rivera was a hot name in the art world for his murals depicting Mexican history, and the Detroit Institute of Arts' director William Valentiner had successfully arranged for the artist to paint his first murals in the United States, the famous "Detroit Industry" murals. 2015 is shaping up to be another big year in Detroit for both artists, as the DIA will host Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, an exhibit that looks at what was a pivotal period in both artists' careers, while the Michigan Opera Theatre will perform Frida, an opera that translates Kahlo's tumultuous life to the stage.
Both open a year after the National Park Service designated the murals as a national landmark. Of course, this is all a coincidence — years of planning typically go into historical exhibitions of such magnitude, says Mark Rosenthal, adjunct curator for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, who has been working on the project for more than two years.
"It's been an idea on the books for longer, maybe as long as 10 years," Rosenthal says. "Different stabs have been made at getting it started. It was a fondly held wish of Graham Beal to see it happen."
When we spoke with DIA director Graham Beal earlier this year, he said the news of the national landmark designation came as a complete surprise to him and the museum. "Graham said he got a phone call telling him it had been done without his ever having known it was in a process, or what he was supposed to do about it," says Rosenthal. "It's a total coincidence as far as we know. I might say overdue. Maybe it's like getting into the Hall of Fame in baseball — you have to have been out of the game for a certain number of years."
Regardless of the murals' national landmark status, Rivera and Kahlo's year in Detroit was a time of accomplishment and growth for both artists certainly worthy of a closer look. "[Rivera] regarded Detroit as his greatest work, and it represented a whole new plateau in his thinking," Rosenthal says. Rivera became great friends with Henry Ford, whose son Edsel commissioned the murals. And when his mural was unveiled, it caused a storm of controversy, reviled by some who thought it to be Marxist blasphemy but also admired by Detroit's blue-collar workers whose way of life was now immortalized as frescoes in a world-class museum.
Since then, history has arguably proved Kahlo to be the more famous artist than Rivera, though at that time she was hardly known. While Rivera seemed to adore Detroit and its industry, Kahlo hated it, and reportedly found Henry Ford insufferable. To make matters worse, her mother died back in Mexico during her year in Detroit, and she had a miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital.
However, these events led her to come into her own style as an artist, with Kahlo creating seminal paintings during her stay in Detroit. "Diego is telling her, 'You've got to pull yourself together. Be a painter, be an artist, and what's more, paint your life. Paint what your life is like,'" Rosenthal says. "And she starts making those paintings about herself and her life and her experiences. These are things that have never been done before, by anybody, let alone a woman. Diego is quick to notice this and point it out." This is epitomized in Kahlo's painting "Henry Ford Hospital," a graphic depiction of her miscarriage with Detroit's (alien to her) skyline shown in the distance.
The DIA exhibit will feature photographs, career-spanning paintings, and the "cartoons," or full-size drawings, that Rivera created to develop his Detroit frescoes. It will mark the first time these drawings have been exhibited anywhere in 30 years. The exhibit will also also take a look at the lives of the artists before they arrived in Detroit and also after they left, and will also offer an overview of Detroit at the time and its Depression-era economy. In all, there will be more than 70 works of art on display in the exhibit.
Meanwhile, the Michigan Opera Theatre will present Frida, the first-ever opera about the life of Kahlo. Composed by San Antonian Robert Xavier Rodriguez and starring soprano Catalina Cuervo as Kahlo, it promises to be an authentically Latino production — a demographic that is often excluded from the high arts.
In an effort to bring the opera to the people, the Michigan Opera Theatre will stage the production at various venues across Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties. The opera will debut at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts on March 7, with subsequent shows at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West
Bloomfield on March 21 and 22, and the Detroit Institute of Arts' Detroit Film Theatre on March 28, with more dates to be announced. — mt
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit will run from Sunday, March 15, 2015 to Sunday, July 12, 2015 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave.; Detroit 313-833-7900; dia.org.
Frida will make its Detroit debut Saturday, March 7, 2015 at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, 44575 Garfield Rd., Clinton Twp., 586-286-2141; macombcenter.com. More performances are scheduled in the four county area; see michiganopera.org for more information.