Diego Rivera – Detroit Mural





Diego Rivera Detroit Industry (1932–1933)

North wall fresco, lower panel 5.398 m × 13.716 m. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, USA.

This massive mural >22 feet high and 73 feet wide is bursting with life, energy and power. It depicts engine and transmission production for the 1932 Ford V8 at the Ford River Rouge factory in Detroit, an ‘ore to assembly’ complex employing 100 000 people on 1200 acres [1]. In the upper section, foundry operations are shown in sequence. A blast furnace is being tapped, while ladles of molten steel are filled, conveyed and emptied. The centre of the panel is occupied by two rows of giant multiple spindle drills, which ream out engine blocks and tower over the straining figures on the engine assembly line. Overhead conveyors traverse the composition like a giant circulatory system [2]. At the bottom of the mural, small Renaissance style monochrome predella panels depict various steel-making processes in ‘a day in the life’ of a worker at the plant. The fresco is signed and dated 1 March 1933 [3].

Diego Rivera, a one-time member of the Mexican Communist Party, seems to have allowed his fascination with the organizing and productive power of technology to moderate his Marxist ideals. Here in a passionate fusion of Futurism, Cubism and Pre-Columbian art, he acknowledges a creative force unparalleled in history with man and machines in harmony. This dynamic ballet is neither critical nor political but a celebration of America’s engineering and industrial workers in much the same way as he honoured Mexican peasant labour in his earlier frescoes [4]. The multiracial workforce maintains its humanity and dignity despite the overwhelming surroundings and the giant drills, mimicking Aztec monolithic sculptures act like guardians. There is humour too. Some of the workers portrayed are Rivera’s assistants and acquaintances. He even depicted himself, ‘not as a worker but as a remote observer in a bowler hat’[1].

This fresco in the inner courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts is part of a series of giant murals (27 panels) on the theme of America’s industrial might, commissioned by Edsel Ford (son of Henry Ford and President of the Ford Motor Company) and based on Rivera’s own observations at Ford’s factories. Each wall of the courtyard has a different theme representing the history of Detroit’s industry including automobiles, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Rivera was paid over $20 000 and completed the frescoes in 8 months using Italian Renaissance techniques [2].

Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886 and studied at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. He went to Paris in 1909 where he made friends with Picasso and Modigliani. He returned to Mexico to serve the Revolution and his first mural paintings were produced in Mexico City 1922–23. He made gigantic compositions for the National Palace and the Cortes Palace at Cuernavaca. Rivera was a big man (>6 feet tall and weighing 300 pounds), who created big pictures and during his career painted more than two-dozen monumental mural projects throughout the United States and Mexico. Some, because of their socialist content, were controversial (for example the Rockefeller Centre, New York) but Detroit Industry is considered to be one of ‘the most brilliantly conceived and executed mural cycles in North America’ [5]. He was married to Frida Kahlo (1907–54), the celebrated Mexican painter and fellow communist. He outlived her by 3 years and died of heart failure in Mexico City in 1957 [6].


  1. 1.
    1. Pastan A

    . Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals. London: Scala Publishers Ltd, 2006.

  2. 2.
    Detroit Institute of Art. The Rouge: The Image of Industry in the Art of Charles Scheeler and Diego Rivera: In Recognition of the 75th Anniversary of the Ford Motor Company. Exhibition Catalogue, Detroit, MI; 1978. p. 47-91.
  3. 3.
    1. Downs LB

    . The Detroit Industry Frescoes by Diego Rivera: A Gallery Guide for Adults. Detroit, MI: Detroit Institute of Arts; 1994. p. 1-8.

  4. 4.
    1. O’Connor FV

    . An iconographic interpretation of Diego Rivera’s Detroit mural. In:Helms CN, editor. Diego Rivera: A Retrospective. London: Hayward Gallery in association with Norton; 1987. p. 215-233.

  5. 5.
    1. Rochfort D

    . The Murals of Diego Rivera. London: South Bank Board in collaboration with Journeyman; 1987. p. 65-75.

  6. 6.
    1. Alley R

    . Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art Other than Works by British Artists. London: Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet; 1981. p. 634.


One Reply to “Diego Rivera – Detroit Mural”

  1. Oddly, my first encounter with this mural was an in-progress tattoo on a museum gift shop employee. I can’t help but think backwards. At the same time, this is probably my favorite piece of Marxist art.

    Thanks for the reminder!

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