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Detroit exhibit explores art, interplay of Kahlo, Rivera

March 11, 2015

DETROIT (AP) — The work of Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo often seems a study in contrasts — he opts for the big and global, she the smaller and personal.

Yet the two were sharing ideas and “responding to each other artistically,” said Mark Rosenthal, curator of “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” opening Sunday at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The exhibit, featuring about 65 artworks, is the first to focus on the couple’s pivotal and productive year in the city during the 1930s — and dives deeply into both the juxtaposition and interplay of their art.

Rivera, who was commissioned to create the “Detroit Industry” murals that grace the museum’s walls, was enamored of industry and the power it could put in the hands of workers. Kahlo had painted in Mexico but was still largely “unknown and unnoticed,” Rosenthal said.

“Diego was telling her, ‘You oughtta paint, you should paint your life,’” Rosenthal said on Tuesday. “In Detroit, she started to make very personal paintings that would typify her future career and really lead her in the direction for which she became so famous.”

Shortly after arriving in Detroit in 1932, Kahlo suffered a miscarriage — an ordeal illustrated in her painting, “Henry Ford Hospital,” in which she lies in blood on a bed marked with the hospital’s name. It also features a foreboding industrial scene in the background and images connected to her by umbilical cords.

Rivera, a communist, nonetheless saw the efficiency in Ford’s Rouge factory — something Kahlo didn’t experience in the hospital bearing his name, Rosenthal said.

“This was really significant because Diego thought so much of Henry Ford and she wasn’t so sure,” he said.

Rosenthal said Kahlo’s tragedy led to a change in Rivera’s storied mural: A farm scene that depicted the work going on in Detroit and Michigan before the rise of industry was moved and an embryonic baby became a centerpiece.

The exhibit also includes Rivera’s conceptual drawings for the mural and other self-portraits by Kahlo, including the so-called Marriage Portrait and “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States.”

Diego Rivera’s grandson, Juan Coronel Rivera — an adviser, lender and essayist for the exhibit — said it’s gratifying that the exhibit goes beyond artwork and explores the relationship of the artists.

That was strengthened by a trove of unpublished letters from the artists’ archive that Juan Coronel Rivera unearthed.

Diego Rivera wrote them to Kahlo over a three-week period while she was visiting her ailing mother in Mexico and they cover “everything,” the grandson says, from what parts of the mural he was working on to more mundane details like whether he showered.

“I like to see the things that Frida and Diego were developing and how they really connect,” Juan Coronel Rivera said. “They were working together in ideas.”


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