Diego Rivera writes about the reactions to his murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts:
Thoroughly immersed in my labors though I was, I became conscious after a time, that whispers were beginning to circulate through the city concerning certain subjects of my frescoes. On the upper level of one wall, I had painted hands breaking through the surface of the earth to bring up pieces of minerals and metals. Above this portrayal, I had painted two reclining female nudes: one black, representing coal; one red, representing iron. On the wall directly opposite, I had shown hands taking limestone, sand, sulphur, and other light-colored substances from the earth, and directly above, had again represented their human analogues in white and yellow female nudes.
The females, who also represented the races of man, were autochthonous types, hardly “pretty.” The gossip spread that I was painting a poem to ugliness, that this was what the figures symbolized, standing above the roar and glint of steel machinery. I who knew better, merely worked on. What I did not understand was that certain people in Detroit were looking for a pretext to attack me and my mural.
In a pharmacological panel, they found it at last. In front of three men at work in a modern biochemical plant, I had pictured a child in the arms of a nurse, being vaccinated by a white-gowned physician. Directly before them stood a horse, a cow, and some sheep—animals from whose tissues many vaccines are prepared. The panel was intended to celebrate the noble work of men of science fighting against disease. To some people, the panel seemed to be a portrayal of the Holy Family in modern dress, the thee laboratory workers standing for the three kings and the animals the animals of the manger. To my enemies, because it had sprung from my conception, the painting was sacrilegious.
One day, from my scaffold, I observed a ….visitor, presented to me as a columnist for one of the big Detroit newspapers, came to see me at work…. He wore his hat pulled down over his eyes, which, when he lifted his head, were obscured by lenses as thick as bottle glass.
After watching me for a time, he shouted up, “Don’t you think the perspective is wrong?”
I peered down, and suddenly I found the sight of this terribly myopic, hat-blinded man so amusing that I could not control myself and burst out laughing.
The columnist squinted back at me in an uncomprehending and embarrassed manner. Finally, he asked where the lavatory was. Between gasps for breath, I gave him directions. Needless to say, he did not return.
But the following day he officially opened the campaign against me in his column. The basis of his condemnation was the alleged immorality of my frescoes. How, in such a beautiful museum, he asked, could I be permitted to paint such filth! He had been informed, he said, by trustworthy authorities, that I was dishonoring the walls of the Institute with pornographic paintings. If I was not stopped now …
But he was only the first of the crackpots who now set upon me.
An even more deranged—and dangerous—foe of my mural was a priest who lived in a suburb of Detroit. His name was Father Charles Coughlin. This clergyman had built a handsome church with the liberal contributions of his poor and ignorant followers…. In addition to his pulpit, Father Coughlin had at his disposal, for the dissemination of his lunacies, his own radio station. He used it to broadcast the most vicious reactionary propaganda imaginable, without any interference at all. 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… As for myself, I calmly continued to paint.
In the midst of the storm, Frida returned to Detroit. She had been watching her mother die, and was spent with grief. Added to this, she was horrified by my appearance. At first she could not recognize me. In her absence, I had dieted and worked so hard that I had lost a great deal of weight. I was also wearing an unfamiliar-looking suit belonging to Clifford Wight, because none of my own clothes now fitted me.
The moment I saw her, I called out, “It’s me.” Finally acknowledging my identity, she embraced me and began to cry. I looked hideous, my pale flesh hung loosely in elephantine folds. I tried to console her by telling her that, in compensation for my loss of weight, I had gained a new quickness of movement which enabled me to work with remarkable agility. As a result of my diet and thyroid treatment, I would be able to finish my work sooner than I had expected. But Frida refused to be pacified, and remained apprehensive until the last dab of paint on the last panel was dry.
Three days before the reopening of the museum to the general public, there was a private showing of my frescoes for the art patrons of Detroit, of whom there seemed to be very many.
Their condemnation was unanimous. Beautiful, well-dressed ladies complained about the loss of their peaceful, lovely garden, which had been like an oasis in the industrial desert of Detroit. Thanks to me, their charming sanctum was now an epitome of everything that made noise and smoke and dust. It seemed true enough to me that my paintings distracted attention from their gorgeous gowns…
The morning after this sombre reception, a group of men whose bearing made it clear that they had no connection whatsoever with the previous night’s visitors, arrived at the museum. More than sixty in number, they walked into the garden in almost military formation behind a man who acted as their spokesman. His card, presented to Clifford Wight, identified him as the chief engineer of the Chrysler automobile factory. All the others in his party, he told Cliff, were also engineers. Cliff could speak French as well as English, of which I knew little, and when he had made the introductions, I asked him to be our interpreter.
Cliff immediately began to explain to the group that my frescoes were the work of painters, not engineers. The spokesman interrupted him, almost rudely, with a motion of his hand. “I should like to talk to Diego Rivera.”
Cliff looked at me questioningly, and I in turn conveyed to the speaker that he had my full attention.
“Each of these men,” he began, “is an engineer in one of the important steel or automobile factories in Detroit. They wanted me to talk to you, first because I am their leader, and secondly, because you, my good fellow with your damned frescoes, have caused me to fail to report to my job on nineteen separate occasions. Never before you came here had I so much as set a foot inside this place. I am not interested in the usual cultural stuff. I pass this building every day to and from work. I stopped in the first time merely to see what the asses in the newspapers were braying at.
“Since that first visit, I have had the urge to return here again and again. I have already spent more than fifty hours in this place. I’ve brought these other men with me today to share my enjoyment. I waited until today, because I wanted to be sure that all those fashionable women, those salon parrots, were out of the way. But that is not the point. What I wish to say for myself and these men with me, is that had we been commissioned to do the job you were asked to do, we would, technically speaking, have done exactly what you did.”
Then turning to Cliff Wight, “You may wish to correct me by reminding me that Rivera is not an engineer by profession, All right. But this fellow has fused together, in a few feet, sequences of operations which are actually performed in a distance of at least two miles, and every inch of his work is technically correct. That’s what is so amazing!”
With that, and with all of his fellows following suit, he shook hands with Cliff and me in a deeply sincere congratulatory manner. Bidding us good-bye, the delegation of engineers then walked out as they had entered.
For the first time in my life, I felt not only content but elated and proud on account of this unique demonstration of approval of my work.
In the afternoon of the same day, I received an even more gratifying ovation. It was of a kind which made me feel that none of my efforts — even those I had believed wasted — had been in vain.
Again it began with a mass of men marching in to see me, but now there were not sixty but more than two hundred. This group also had a spokesman. However, he showed no credentials. As soon as he appeared, he shouted in a deep resonant voice, striding into the center of the garden, “We want Diego Rivera to come here!”
I stopped what I was doing and glanced around at the crowd below. At once, I descended from the scaffold and walked right up to the big, muscular speaker.
Waiving all ordinary social preliminaries, he acknowledged my presence with a nod of his head. “We are Detroit workers from different factories and belonging to different political parties. Some of us are Communists, some are Trotskyites, others are plain Democrats and Republicans, and still others belong to no party at all.
“You’re said to be a man of the left opposition, though not a Trotskyite. In any case, you’re reported to have said that, as long as the working class does not hold power, a proletarian art is impossible. You have further qualified this by saying that a proletarian art is feasible only so long as the class in power imposes such an art upon the general population. So you have implied that only in a revolutionary society can a true revolutionary art exist. All right! But can you show me, in all these paintings of yours, a square inch of surface which does not contain a proletarian character, subject, or feeling? If you can do this, I will immediately join the left opposition myself. If you cannot, you must admit before all these men, that here stands a classic example of proletarian art created exclusively by you for the pleasure of the workers of this city.”
I looked around at the work I had done, and I conceded that the speaker was entirely right.
—from Rivera’s autobiography My Art, My Life.