Diego Rivera’s Interpretation of His Detroit Industry Murals

Left: Diego Rivera, Autograph manuscript dated and signed, draft of an untitled essay concerning the freso paintings completed at the Detroit Institute of Arts, April 1933. Estimate: $6,000 to $9,000. Right and below, images courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s art is rich with symbolism, frequently referring to the history of the region where a given painting was installed. His Detroit Industry murals, commissioned by automobile magnate Edsel Ford in the 1930s, depict automotive workers and their machines. The 27 frescoes on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Rivera Court show the importance of manufacturing to the history of Detroit, imagery that is as relevant today as when it was painted.    

On April 21, Swann Galleries is bringing to auction a manuscript that provides a privileged view into the symbols of Rivera’s creative world. In April 1933, shortly after completing the Industry murals, Rivera wrote an essay for publication in an American art journal that details his own interpretation of the frescoes. This signed and dated manuscript, written entirely in his hand, includes discussion of the principle he used to organize the paintings: “the undulating movement which one finds in water currents, electric waves, stratification of the different layers under the surface of the earth, and, in a general way, throughout the continuous development of life . . . .” He wrote the essay in French, to later be translated by an assistant into English, probably because he was less confident writing in English—but his fluency in images is undeniable. Rivera claimed the Industry murals to be his greatest work, and this manuscript goes some distance toward explaining why.

This Saturday night, in conjunction with Art X Detroit: Kresge Art Experience, a five-day multidisciplinary art celebration in Detroit, the DIA presents The Troublemakers: The True, Epic Story of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Depression Detroit, a multimedia presentation about the controversy around the creation of these very murals. While Rivera was immensely proud of his achievement, not everyone shared his politics and attitudes toward capitalism, technology and industry.