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A Scene of Industry
In 1932, the Ford Motor Company possessed some of the most sophisticated industrial operations in the world. Its River Rouge plant, the central inspiration for Rivera’s series, was a massive complex, one of the largest industrial manufacturing sites in the world. The River Rouge plant housed the productive operations for Ford’s new V8 engine. Rivera set out to depict the evolution of this technological marvel from its origin as earthly raw materials to the finished form. The scene abounds with images of industrial might—blast furnaces, conveyer belts, assembly lines, large-scale stamping presses, milling machines, and much more. Added to orchestra of industrial instruments is the magic of the factory—the ability to synchronize the operations of production such that this great industrial choreography can continue uninterrupted from dawn to dusk. Rivera’s industrial optimism creates something of a tension for the viewer of the murals, who can’t help but recognize this as an idealized, sanitized portrait of technology (despite the gesture toward technology’s dark side on the west wall). No machines are malfunctioning here, no workers put in danger from high heat, fatigue, and repetitive motion. Detroit Industry seems the inverse or mirror-image of great cultural critiques of mass production—those coming from political philosophers like the American Transcendentalists to films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In an age of the invention of the genre of industrialized dystopia, Rivera presents the opposite—the utopian possibilities of industrial society. For Lang's famous "Moloch-Machine" scene, click on the link below and begin at 13:20 of Metropolis:
Together with the triumphalism of technological progress from the 17th century Scientific Revolution to the 19th century positivists and beyond existed a darker view of increasingly mechanistic production, which polluted the environment, radically destabilized the global economy, and fundamentally changed the nature of work. In addition, in the 1930s another legacy of industrial mass production loomed large—the potential for it to be bent in the service of modern war. The First World War was still fresh in people’s minds. It had resulted in tens of millions of casualties, over 200,000 Americans. Rivera gestures toward this on the west wall, depicting technology as a potentially destructive force (military aircraft). The most negative portrayal of technology comes in a small panel outside of the main scene on the North Wall. Here, Rivera depicts a laboratory preparing bombs with poisonous gas.
Despite this link between technology and war, Rivera’s murals are a celebration of the capacity of human beings to develop and harness machines—and to fit themselves seemingly into the rhythms of their movements. Such a portrait of technology and industry crossed political divides. Industrial capitalism embraced technology—as did state-planned communism—as did fascism. Hybrid regimes like Japan’s new constitutional monarchy and Turkey’s authoritarian republic set out to promote domestic production. In Japan, a few hybrid industrial-financial behemoths (zaibatsu) came to dominate the country’s economy from their beginnings during the Meiji Restoration until the end of WWII. This sanguine view of industrialism grew to become a forceful economy principle, so much so that a main thrust of the international economic system constructed after WWII was to promote large-scale industrialization among non-industrial countries. Rarely did these projects achieve lasting success. For an illuminating analysis of Rivera's mixed view of technological progress and its connection to politics and society, check out this detailed look at Rivera's Man, Controller of the Universe by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker:
Tensions of Modernity
On the East Wall of Detroit Industry, Rivera paints a scene of birth. There is a baby, perhaps even a fetus, nestled inside the bulb of a plant. A web of roots surrounds the sleeping child. To the right and left of this scene sit two women. One holds fruits, the other grains—they are the fecundity of the earth incarnate. The figures are recognizable as indigenous, making the connection between nature/earth and indigenous culture. This equation of indigenous with “the natural” or traditional juxtaposes or complements the sophistication of modern industrial society. The East Wall represents the birth or beginning of the great process that is unfolding in the murals. The east holds the rising sun, the beginnings. The foundation of the industrial process, then, is agriculture: the earth and those who labor on it, the peasantry. Here, the earth is fertile; it yields its bounty. Rivera codes it as the female, while industry is coded as male. Like the portrayal or racial unity and that of the amicability of hierarchical industrial relations, the harmony of nature and industry presents modern society in utopian terms. For a counter-perspective, we see the demonic linking of the female and technology in dystopian terms in Fritz Lang's Metropolis through his character of the Robot Maria. Scholar Andreas Huyssen presents his fantastic interpretation of this element of the film in the article "The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis."
Above the industrial scene on the north wall, Rivera has placed another scene of indigenous work, this time two indigenous figures holding minerals mined from the earth. Behind them, a mountain rises up from the background out of which a number of hands protrude, also holding minerals from the earth. Together with agriculture, mining forms the second foundational pillar of the industrial process. That both of these pieces are represented by indigenous figures and motifs forms quite a striking contrast to the hyper-modernity of industrial life.
Questions of the relationship between earth and industry, between indigenous work and industrial work, and between traditions and modernity pervade the murals. The coexistence of indigenous and industrial cultures seems at first glance harmonious. The realities, however, of the status of indigenous agricultural societies were far from utopian. However much modern industrial society might have been rooted in (even dependent on) traditional practices and identities, the ruptures between "modern" and "traditional" life were profound. The period in world history between 1914 and 1945 is defined by this complex relationship.
Introduction: A Mural as Window, Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry
Above and below are the two main parts (the "North Wall" and the "South Wall") of Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry, a series of murals he created in 1932 and 1933 to depict the (partly mythical) industrial world of the Ford Motor Company. The painting touches on many of the key big issues that arose between 1914 and 1945: the rapid development of science and technology, industrialization, changes in the nature of work, the radicalization of politics, the tension between human traditions and modernization, and collective action. On a more basic level, the very fact that a Mexican painter would be commissioned to paint an homage to Ford Motor Company indicates that by the 1930s globalization is occurring not only on the level of international capital and commodity production and distribution but on the personal level—individuals moving between cultures to produce cultural hybridity. In other words, millions of micro-globalizations accompanied the macro-globalization processes. One should not be separated from the other. In this case, the creation of Detroit Industry brought the Mexican Rivera, who had trained in Mexico and Paris, to the United States. The murals show this triangle—European modernist styles (Cubism, Futurism, Socialist Realism), Mexican imagery, traditions, and motifs, and a U.S. industrial scene. Like many other products of globalization, Rivera’s murals carved out an intercultural space to create something new and beautiful. At the same time, precisely this type of opening caused anxiety and provoked backlash—so much so in the case of Detroit Industry that citizens' movements formed to have the entire series whitewashed, erased from the Detroit Institute of Art’s walls, just as Rivera's more "political" mural Man at the Crossroads in New York's Rockefeller Center was destroyed, primarily for its depiction of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and its purported communist messaging. In this introduction, I will explore the ways in which the mural project reflected historical trends of the period between 1914 and 1945. I will focus on the immediate production of and reaction to the murals in the midst of the most acute period of U.S. and global economic depression, the early 1930s.