In 1931 the Detroit Institute of Arts invited the Mexican Marxist artist, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) to create a mural cycle in the museum that would reflect the history of Detroit.
The series of 27 fresco panels was commissioned by Edsel Ford – the son of Henry Ford and Patron of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Edsel and Diego had totally opposing political agenda for the murals. Edsel looked to Rivera to burnish the image of the Ford family, which had been increasingly under fire in the early years of the Great Depression. Rivera, on the other hand, saw the commission as an opportunity to infiltrate the capitalist heart of the U.S. automotive industry with images that conveyed his Marxist beliefs.
Rosenthal, author of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit cites two main reasons for the success of the relationship, despite the clash of values: pragmatism and Rivera’s deep admiration of Henry Ford.
‘Rivera and the Fords found that they could break bread together, see how things could be advanced, and not be bothered by the inherent contradictions in their beliefs and goals.…
‘Henry Ford was greatly admired in Russia at the time. Rivera had spent a year [1927-28] in Russia, where a translation of Henry Ford’s autobiography had just been published. The socialists thought that Ford was interested in the workers’ well being, and believed that his concepts of industrialization held great promise for workers. It was the age of social engineering, and many thought that Ford made the work of the Socialist state possible. Rivera recalled in his own autobiography seeing portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Henry Ford hanging side by side in a Russian worker’s home’
Rivera moved with his wife, Frida Kahlo, to Detroit in April 1932 and began work by visiting a variety of Detroit's industrial plants including Ford's 2000 acre River Rouge manufacturing complex.
Rivera considered the murals the pinnacle of his career. The city of Detroit wasn’t so sure. Catholic and Episcopalian clergy condemned the murals as blasphemous. The Detroit Daily News described the murals ‘as coarse in conception... foolishly vulgar… without meaning for the intelligent observer… a slander to Detroit working men…’ and ‘un-American’. As a result of the controversy, 10,000 people visited the museum on a single Sunday.
Today they are celebrated as some of the best examples of Mexican murals in the United States with the New York Times describing them as ‘probably as close as this country gets to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel’