Rivera and Kahlo’s worldwide popularity puts their art in heavy demand, meaning that the DIA exhibition is a rare opportunity to see nearly 70 works collected together. The juxtapositions make plain how they influenced one another at this critical point in their careers. Kahlo’s riveting Henry Ford Hospital painting and sketch, depicting the loss of their child, are set near a larger-than-life Rivera cartone portraying an infant nestled in the bulb of a plant. Both painters also explored their conflicted feelings about technology and the industrial north. Rivera finds a sort of synthesis—albeit a tense one—by depicting the nobility of the working class, the great things accomplished by collective work. Panels in Detroit Industry show both the miracle and the cost of science—vaccinations on one hand, chemical warfare on another. Kahlo, meanwhile, paints Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, where icons of each landscape are diametrically opposed. It is only in her body that the cultures merge, right at the cutting line between the two.
The DIA exhibition is staged narratively: As you move through galleries, the artists’ evolution before, during, and after their time in Detroit plays out. Silent short films are cast along the walls, showing them at work in Detroit. Photographs and screens of news clippings from the era bring dimension to the artwork. (“Famed Mural Painter Here” reads one headline.) And lighthearted pieces, like the exquisite corpse drawings that Kahlo made with a friend on a hotel notepad during a trip to New York, bring the full vibrancy of their personalities into the room.
The Rivera/Kahlo exhibition rides on a swell of interest in the artists throughout Detroit. Michigan Opera Theatre staged Frida in March. Restaurants in Detroit’s Mexicantown have put Kahlo’s personal recipes on the menu. But it is the DIA exhibit—that is, the art that Kahlo and Rivera created themselves—that is the star of the show. The museum is making it available to as many people as possible: This is its first fully bilingual show, and two thousand free tickets were donated to Detroit students. Curators expect the exhibition—the final one under museum director Graham Beal, who, with astonishing grace, steered the DIA through its renovation, hard-fought millage, and the bankruptcy threat—to be one of the most well attended shows in a generation. Deservedly so. This one is worth the hype. The exhibit unleashes both the ferocity and the tenderness of Rivera and Kahlo—and of Detroit, too.