When Diego Rivera used his brush to honor revolutionary healers

There has never been a time in my sensitive life that I did not know the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whose 135th birthday would have been today. As a little boy growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I remember my mother dragging me to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) with the promise of spending time in the medieval armor galleries. Such offers were tempting enough to lure me into the backseat of our station wagon. But what kept me inside the museum was the hall with high ceilings and covered with marble where “Detroit Industry” (1932-33), Rivera’s frescoed masterpiece is located. . These frescoes are an integral part of the permanent collection of the DIA, even if this pride has not always been granted to them.

Edsel Ford, heir to the Ford Motor Company, became Rivera’s main patron in Detroit. Rivera, a longtime Communist, began painting his Detroit murals shortly after a fledgling union called the United Auto Workers staged a hunger march against Ford Motor Company, and several workers were killed by the authorities. “Detroit Industry” depicts several episodes of labor-management interaction – something the Motor City tycoons didn’t want on the walls of the DIA. When the frescoes were unveiled in 1933, they sparked controversy and outrage – especially over a scene where a Christ-like child receives a vaccine – but also crowds.

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, this section of Diego Rivera’s famous mural of Detroit’s industry depicts the production and manufacture of the 1932 Ford V-8 engine at the Rough plant. Photo via Getty Images

A year later, Rivera experienced similar opposition as he painted a mural for the lobby of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Rivera called it “The Man at a Crossroads” – a three-panel mural displaying workers in the centerpiece, flanked by less than flattering depictions of capitalism and more than positive scenes of socialism. What was reprehensible to the Rockefellers, it is said, was a portrait of Lenin in the middle of the annual May 1 parade in Russia – something that did not appear in his original sketches. Rivera was paid and kicked off the site, his work covered up. Months later, it was destroyed over a weekend; the employees returned to the building to find a newly plastered wall. Rivera called it an “act of cultural vandalism”.

Art-loving Detroiters who visited the DIA during the McCarthy era recall seeing a large sign displayed outside the Rivera Gallery, praising the artistic values ​​of the frescoes but also warning visitors against the “loathsome” policy displayed there. Fortunately, art prevailed: Edsel Ford rejected any suggestion of destroying the “anti-capitalist” murals. “Four massive walls, 27 individual paintings and nine months of labor-intensive work,” is how the museum currently boasts of the murals in its current catalog.

For me, today as then, Rivera’s frescoes are simply miraculous. Every square inch on the four walls is transformed into a series of masterpieces. Walk through a depiction of the former No.1 Power Plant at the Ford Motor Company’s Red River Plant. Once inside, the viewer is confronted with the artist’s view of what was once the largest factory in the world, a virtual city within a city of production. It’s impossible not to immerse yourself in Rivera’s dynamic portrayal of a new industry that has changed our lives – and not always for the better. On one side of the factory, you can see how the workers receive the raw materials by the ton. Then a battalion of muscular, faceless men gathered them all on the famous Ford assembly line, so millions of cars were chasing the other end of the plant every year. There’s also a depiction of the now defunct drug house of Detroit’s Parke-Davis at the dawn of the Big Pharma era.

It wasn’t until I was in medical school that I discovered Rivera’s 1944 mural “The History of Cardiology” at the National Heart Institute in Mexico City.

In 2005, art historian David Lomaswrote an essay in the British Medical Journal on the history and significance of the mural. For starters, Lomas noted, it was commissioned by Dr. Ignacio Chavez, a renowned Mexican cardiologist. The artist and the doctor likely met at the Colegio Nacional, an honorary academy that included some of Mexico’s most prominent artists, writers, philosophers and scientists, Lomas said.

Chavez wanted a mural to honor the great men of his profession and he believed Rivera was just the artist to do it. Chavez wrote to Rivera that the image “should indicate the upward trend in knowledge and, if possible, should express how slow and difficult progress has been, how these men have had to struggle with routine, prejudices. , ignorance and fanaticism… if you could find a way, it would be nice to paint this group of men on the move, striving in an upward march. Unveiled on April 18, 1944, Rivera’s mural did not disappoint in its Whiggish depiction of such progress.

To represent this pantheon of cardiac physicians, Rivera added flights of steps and scalloped niches to the composition so that the eye ascends to a painted threshold that reveals the new Heart Institute.

Rivera also introduces Andreas Vesalius, the anatomist who in 1543 wrote the first accurate atlas of the human body, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (On the Tissue of the Human Body in Seven Books).” In the mural, we see Vesalius dissecting a human heart that seems baffling in reality.

In another part, Rivera portrays Michel Servet (Miguel Serveto), the Spanish physician and theologian who in 1553 dissected and described the path of the pulmonary vein and artery before being burned on the cross for being a heretic. .

Elsewhere there is William Harvey, whose 1628 “De Motu Cordis (An Anatomical Study of the Movement of the Heart and Blood),” overturned Galen’s erroneous teachings by correctly describing the complete circuit of arteries and veins.

Rivera also winks at modern researchers, as well as indigenous healers. In one panel, he depicts Aztec healers who found the herbal infusions of yolloxochitl useful for patients with congestive heart failure. The active ingredient in this “flower of the heart” was digitalis, which did not appear in Western medical literature until 1776, when William Withering wrote about the cardiac powers of digitalis.

The main theme of Rivera’s large murals was that in a fair world, advances in science, technology and medicine must be accessible and affordable to all citizens. A man flawed in many ways – to say nothing of his tumultuous relationship with artist Frida Kahlo – Rivera had a valid point when it came to how he viewed healthcare for all as a human right.

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