USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

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.

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