Rare Preparatory Drawings of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals Scientifically Analyzed

Related: Marxism, art, Diego Rivera, murals, Vladimir Lenin, Anton Anderssen


An atheist, womanizing, 316-pound communist spy brought controversy to Detroit when he painted murals on the walls of the newly constructed Detroit Institute of Arts in 1931. Workers in gas masks making poisonous effluvium, ugly women posed topless, doctors and scientists posing with a child in a mock nativity scene; ahh ... this is art - the art of Diego Rivera.

From 1931-1932, renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his third wife, aspiring artist Frida Kahlo lived in Detroit. She was half his age. Rivera enjoyed renewing wives frequently. He also enjoyed creating art that caused people to react.

Rivera made a name for himself painting murals, especially since each one provoked controversy. But it was his notorious mural at Rockefeller Center (May Day Parade demonstration led by Communist leader Vladimir Lenin) that broke the camel's back. The Marxist Vladimir Lenin executed 30,000 of his dissidents, and was, by most reasonable standards, a piece of fecal matter.

After Rivera got his cash for doing the DIA, he took off and left many unanswered questions in his wake. Today, scientists at the DIA are examining his preparatory drawings to determine what materials and methods he used; photographing each drawing for research archives, and examining the delicate works of art for any damage. These drawings are rarely removed from their climate-controlled vault; the last time was 30 years ago. Thirteen of them have been analyzed; scientists are trying to determine what types of fixatives were used, composition of both charcoal and pigments, and application techniques used on the 83-year-old works.

The problem with having these drawings (also called cartoons) out in the open is damage caused by exposure to the elements. Paper is made from trees, and trees are organic. Light is energy, and that energy destroys organic materials. Until scientists can figure out how to protect art from energy waves, extreme caution has to be taken with the delicate pieces.

Due to their fragility and size, the cartoons cannot be loaned to other museums and were last on view in the 1986 exhibition Diego Rivera: A Retrospective.

"Because the drawings are too fragile to leave the museum, the digital photographs will provide researchers and scholars access to an important aspect of Rivera's work."

Rivera completed the Detroit Industry in 1933, and considered them to be his most successful work. The murals are based on the then state-of-the-art Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant. Rivera drew the 13 cartoons in 1932 in preparation for the murals and gave them to the museum upon completion of the work.

Five of the drawings will be part of a 2015 exhibition at the DIA featuring the work of Rivera and Frida Kahlo created during their time in Detroit. The cartoons will provide insight into Rivera's working process and allow visitors to have a better understanding of how the Detroit Industry murals were created. A Bank of America grant underwrites the endeavor; it also provides for mounts with a custom-built lighting scheme and climate control that will make the cartoons suitable for public display.

The Bank of America Art Conservation Project is a unique program that provides grants to nonprofit museums throughout the world to conserve historically or culturally significant works of art that are in danger of degeneration, including works that have been designated as National Treasures. Since 2010, Bank of America has provided grants to museums in 25 countries for 57 conservation projects through the Global Art Conservation Project. In 2012, the program supported the restoration of a diverse range of works, including Picasso's Woman Ironing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Tintoretto's Paradise at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the reassembly and preservation of the illuminated manuscripts of the Anvar-I Suhayli at the CSMVS Museum, Mumbai; and five paintings by Marc Chagall at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In 2013, the list of recipients has grown once again to include the restoration of 24 projects in 16 countries.

More On: May Day, National Treasure, Guggenheim Museum, Matt Elliot,

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Anton Anderssen Dr. Anton Anderssen is a cultural anthropologist, specializing in "high culture." Visit his web page at Hartforth.com. Anton is a member of several high IQ societies, including Mensa, Triple 9, ISPE and Prometheus. He has seasonal residency on the Italian Riviera, The Alps, Hawaii, Michigan and elsewhere world-wide covering cultural events. Dr. Anderssen's articles are included in the United States Library of Congress as part of their Official Performing Arts Historical Web Archives.

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