A few years ago, I started to write this. It was a draft that I kept going back to, adding this and subtracting that. Here it is, at long last:
There was a huge controversy when Diego Rivera first painted the Detroit Industry frescoes in 1932 and 1933. One of the leaders against them was Father Charles Coughlin. In his autobiography, Diego Rivera writes, “The day after the appearance of the column denouncing my work, Father Coughlin began to honor me daily with long diatribes condemning the institute frescoes as immoral, blasphemous, antireligious, obscene, materialistic and communistic. As a result, the whole city of Detroit began to argue about what I was doing.” According the Rivera biographer Bertram D. Wolfe, the Detroit News wrote in an editorial that “the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work completely.”
His supporters stood by him. Rivera writes, “I was gratified that Edsel Ford stood by me loyally. And until all the sound and fury had passed, an army of eight thousand, working in shifts, guarded my work from destruction.”
The frescoes were a hit. When they were first opened to the public, they drew huge crowds. Most people appreciated them. The favorable responses outweighed the unfavorable ones.
The 1952 story is more obscure. It’s difficult to make sense of it because there’s little information to be found. I once found photocopies of local newspaper articles about this second controversy. They were in a trashcan and caught my eye. This chance discovery piqued my curiosity.
In early 1952, Senator Joseph McCarthy was rolling in power and influence. He had his followers in Detroit. One of these was former Detroit Mayor Eugene Van Antwerp. He was elected to the Detroit City Council after he’d served as mayor.
From Bertram D. Wolfe’s 1963 book, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, page 390:
“…a number of people, including former Mayor Van Antwerp, petitioned the Detroit City Council to remove or cover up Rivera’s Age of Steel frescoes in the inner court of the Detroit Institute of Art.”
The City Council requested an evaluation of the murals by the Detroit Art Commission. Members of the commission included Robert T. Tannahill and Eleanor Clay Ford. The commission defended the art and said, “We recommend that the paintings remain on exhibition.”
Others who defended them included Edsel Ford and George F. Pierrot. Pierrot was director of the People’s Museum Association. It seems that he wrote a book about the frescoes in the 1930’s. He tried to promote attendance at the Detroit Institute of Arts during the depression and into the 1940’s. One of the ways that he did this was through a series of lectures know as the World Adventure Series. This lecture series grew into his popular travel show, which ran on on Detroit television from 1948 to 1976.
At the height of this controversy, the late Joy Hakanson wrote a profile of Diego Rivera for the Detroit News on March 21, 1952. We knew her later as Joy Hakanson Colby.
I don’t think that the frescoes were in any danger of being destroyed. They could have been covered by curtains or otherwise hidden from view. Instead they stayed open, with a sort of “disclaimer.” It is pictured in the photo above and it reads, in full:
“Rivera’s politics and his publicity seeking are detestable. But let’s get the record straight on what he did here. He came from Mexico to Detroit, thought our mass production industries and our technology wonderful and very exciting, painted them as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. This came after the debunking twenties when our artists and writers found nothing worthwhile in America and worst of all in America was the Middle West. Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city. If we are proud of this city’s achievements, we should be proud of these paintings and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today.”
Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker article of November 28, 2011, titled “The Painting on the Wall” mainly deals with Rivera in New York, but has this to say about Detroit:
“Other magnates had been enthusiasts for Rivera, as witness the magnificent frescoes of factory scenes that Edsel Ford commissioned, in 1932, for the Detroit Institute of Arts. (They weathered the McCarthy era with a sign that defended them as art while conceding that the artist’s politics were ‘detestable.’)”
In the early 1952 there was another controversy going on with Rivera’s work in Mexico. This was alluded to at the end of the disclaimer.
This trouble centered around his mural “The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace.” Among other things, it had images of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. It’s counted among his works that are missing or destroyed.
This controversy likely put a fire under the opponents of the work here in Detroit. It made them bolder.
It’s too bad the museum administration felt that they had to use the word “detestable.” Maybe it was partly the climate of the times and partly “throwing the zealots a bone.”
My thanks to those Detroiters who got together and defended the murals, both in the early 1930’s and in the early 1950’s. These included Edsel Ford, William Valentiner, and thousands of ordinary museum patrons.
Thanks to the great Frida Kahlo, for her own work and for supporting and encouraging Diego’s work. It’s interesting that she’s better known than he is now. Her work is usually regarded as equal in quality to his work. Many think it’s better than his work. I appreciate them both.
My sympathy to Diego Rivera’s work is influenced by having one of his best efforts here in my hometown. The room the frescoes are in is known as Rivera Court. When the museum’s open, the frescoes are always on view. The museum even sets up chairs and holds concerts and lectures there.
I glad that the Detroit frescoes escaped the fate of those in New York. They’re still here and open for viewing. They look great.
On the the current 2015 exhibit on Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit:
On the fight over the murals in 1932 and 1933:
The Michigan Daily, March 21, 1952, “Move Made to Banish Rivera Mural in Detroit”:
The Owosso Argus Press, March 20, 1952, “Controversy Revived over Detroit Murals”:
William Bostick, an administrator at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1946 to 1976:
“WILLIAM BOSTICK: Councilman Van Antwerp, formerly Mayor Van Antwerp, was stirring up a storm again about the Rivera murals. He tried to draft a resolution in the Common Council to have the murals covered up or somehow hidden from view.
MARY CHRIS ROSPOND: Was this during the McCarthy scare?
WILLIAM BOSTICK: This was in 1952. That was probably the McCarthy. . . But Van Antwerp had attacked these before when he was mayor. And of course they had been a subject of attack over the years. Then Van Antwerp renewed the criticisms which had been made [repeatedly]: Rivera’s personal character—he was living with a woman he wasn’t married to—the murals were communistic, so was Rivera; the workers were ugly; the murals were blasphemous and decadent. The Arts Commission approved a letter written by Director Richardson refuting this and we got by again. …”
The entire interview is here:
More on William Bostick:
On Diego Rivera:
Information on the lost mural “The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace.” This was the Diego Rivera which was stirring up trouble in 1952:
Eugene Van Antwerp (the major force against the murals, a former Detroit mayor):
On Joseph McCarthy:
On Bertram D. Wolfe:
A New Yorker article from 2011, “The Painting on the Wall”:
On the fate of Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Center murals in New York: