The designation places the iconic Depression-era murals, inspired by the workers and scenes at the Ford River Rouge plant, on a list of more than 2,500 sites across the U.S. recognized “as places that possess exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” according to a National Park Service news release.
The Mexican-born Rivera (1886-1957) is widely recognized as a leading figure of 20th-Century art, and the Detroit murals are considered his most important work in America. Many scholars believe they are the finest work of his career.
Rivera executed the murals depicting the city of Detroit’s manufacturing base and labor force on the four walls of the DIA’s Garden Court between July 1932 and March 1933. Edsel Ford and DIA director William Valentiner commissioned Rivera, paying him $25,000. The artist was given no restrictions other than that the murals should relate to the history of Detroit and its industry.
Though they are now beloved works inseparable not only from the DIA but the identity of Detroit, the finished murals were at first greeted with controversy from many corners: Some believed they were sacrilegious, blasphemous and pornographic; others objected to presumed references to Rivera’s Marxist politics.
Many rich patrons of the DIA balked at the idea that a gigantic image of a factory, Ford Motor Co's Rouge Plant, was going to be the centerpiece of the DIA, according to press accounts of the day. Dozens of religious organizations were convinced Rivera had mocked the Holy Trinity in a panel that depicts a child vaccination. The scene shows a young child with a horse, a cow and sheep at the infant's feet. The composition of the figures forms a triangle like that of a nativity scene.
Additionally, groups representing hundreds of thousands of Metro Detroiters demanded that any public funding to the DIA be cut due to Rivera's work. A front page editorial in The Detroit News on March 18, 1933, neatly summed up their anger:
"Rivera's whole work and conception is un-American … and foolishly vulgar," the unsigned editorial states. "It bears no relation to the soul of the community, to the room, to the building or to the general purpose of Detroit's Institute of Arts. … This is not a fair picture of the man who works short hours, must be quick in action, alert of mind, who works in a factory where there is plenty of space for movement. The best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work (and) completely return the court to its original beauty."
As the threat became more real, the international press soon picked up on the drama.
The irony is that Rivera, so-called loyal socialist, was in complete awe of Henry Ford and Detroit's technology
"Henry Ford (is) a true poet and artist, one of the greatest in the world," Rivera said shortly before he arrived in Detroit, according to press accounts. Rivera, according to his autobiography "My Art, My Life," believed American engineers — creators of factories, skyscrapers and highways — were the nation's true artists and Detroit perfected the best expression of American art: the large-scale factory.
While Rivera had no intention of glossing over the misery in factories or Detroit streets, he was clearly entranced by its manufacturing muscle.
More from The Detroit News:
Multiple irony alert: The fabulous Detroit Industry murals celebrating the city's labor force painted in the 1930s by Mexican artist Diego Rivera - works once dubbed "un-American" and "detestable" due to Rivera's Marxist politics and populist insistence that art belonged to the public - have been declared a national historic landmark. The move comes even as voracious creditors, many representing the same massive financial institutions that bled Detroit dry, are now hounding the bankrupt city and beleaguered museum for the right to auction off the works to get their pound of flesh. The landmark status for the murals, considered Rivera's best work and the finest examples of Mexican mural art in the U.S., recognizes them as "places that possess exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.” A heritage, clearly, that still includes vulture capitalism.