The flames shot up from under the immense blast furnace with ferocious fury, as if someone had lifted the lid off hell. A heroic black silhouette stoked the fire like Neptune might stab a three-headed serpent with his trident.
Diego Rivera painted the scene onto the wet plaster with a stunning, almost manic quickness. He had to work fast – he had to finish before the plaster dried so the paint would bind to it, so it would last forever. He’d paint for a day straight sometimes, sweat dripping from his brow, a feverish, sunstruck mess of man. He was determined to capture his magical vision for what would ultimately become his masterpiece: Detroit Industry. An imposing, heavyset man, he’d lose over 100 pounds working on the set of murals from 1932 to 1933.
By some strange twist of fate, Rivera – a fat, dissident, subversive, commie Mexican – had convinced auto magnate and benefactor of the arts Edsel Ford to pay for the mural, which would cover the walls of the Detroit Institute of Art’s luxurious Garden Court. With Edsel’s blessing, he toured the Ford River Rouge Complex for weeks, a 1.4 square mile fortress of industry that employed approximately 100,000 able-bodied men (and women). Perched ominously over the Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan, the white and sanguine complex was home to an automobile assembly plant, a power plant, and a steel plant, and Ford even owned the nearby docks and railroad tracks.
Within the River Rouge Complex, Rivera saw the dynamic spirit of America. The whole operation of making a car – from the processing of raw materials to the assembly of the finished car – was done on site. The resulting murals – done in lurid tones – captured the multiethnic makeup of the workforce, the constant motion of the conveyor belts and men, and the formidable strength of the giant machines that to Rivera often resembled ancient Toltec gods.
Rivera perceived in its entirety, for one moment, the great and terrible power of science and industry. On one mural, men and women with bowed heads worked reverently in laboratories, creating vaccines and other modern miracles. On another, scientists in alien-like hazard suites mixed chemicals to make poison gas. A hawk is juxtaposed with a dove, a warplane with a passenger plane, a volcano with a pyramid. The imagery is dizzying and intoxicating.
The workers, however, remain the true focus – Rivera’s largest murals are dedicated to the active, lively interior of the River Rouge assembly plant. Men grimace, smile, and pant, assembling engines and tending to machines that dwarf them in size. Like dancers in an industrial ballet, they move in choreographed, synchronized arcs, heaving and pulling, standing stoically or sitting in battered clumps under the sprawling glass ceiling. Well-to-do men and women on a factory tour gawk like spectators at the Detroit Zoo. The vast array of shining, metal machines run the men more, it looks, than the men run the machines.
In a separate series of monochrome, depressingly colorless panels, workers eat lunch on the factory floor, listen to a lecture from Henry Ford, and listlessly file outside to their cars. There’s an overwhelming sense of fatigue, of melancholy, and of isolation, although you don’t necessarily see it in their faces. What’s the reward for their exhausting toil, I wonder? A car of their own?
On the east wall of the Garden Court (eventually rechristened as the Rivera court), Rivera curiously chose to depict a human fetus curled up inside the bulb of a plant. Flanked by a nude Hispanic women holding stalks of wheat on the left and a nude black women holding a bushel of apples on the right, it communicates a message of frailty, that the worlds we build for ourselves – no matter how dazzling or “advanced” – depend gravely on the natural world.
When Detroit’s clergymen saw Detroit Industry, the nudity shocked and appalled them, to say nothing of the other controversial images. They demanded that Rivera’s work be removed but were unsuccessful, despite The Detroit News even taking their side and labelling the work “un-American.” In painting the walls, Rivera was breaking down walls, too.
Four other nude women also grace Detroit Industry, representing the four races (simplified as white, black, red, and yellow) and holding the corresponding resource (limestone, coal, ore, and sand, used to make steel) Rivera had symbolically associated with each. Next to the stout, oversized women, terrific hands burst forth from the earth – the hands of workers – clutching stones and building a pyramid to the gods.
As the women leisurely run their hands through the raw materials, you can almost feel it slipping through your fingers.