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New exhibit explores Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's time in Detroit

Mar 11, 2015

One of Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals.
Credit Flickr user ashleystreet / Flickr

This month, the Detroit Institute of Arts will unveil a major exhibition focusing on two of the most fascinating and influential artists of the 20th century.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo opens in Detroit on March 15 and runs until July 12. It takes us deep into the year that Rivera and Kahlo spent in Detroit.

President and CEO of the Detroit Institute of Art Graham Beal says when the couple came to Detroit in 1932, Rivera was already established, but his wife of only a few years, Kahlo, was still shaping her identity as an artist.

"Frida, when she came here, I wouldn't say she was unformed as an artist, but she hadn't found her personal voice. So you had these two people in very, very different stature," Beal says.

And Kahlo didn't really like Detroit, or the United States, at all.

"[Kahlo] would pretend to misunderstand English and would drop swear words in polite company as if she didn't really know English."

"She was known to be quite a prankster in a way," says Beal. "She spoke fairly good English, but would pretend to misunderstand English and would drop swear words in polite company as if she didn't really know English."

Kahlo is now known for her elaborate, colorful, Mexican style of dress, but Beal says she first adopted this fashion in Detroit after being exposed to wealthy patrons whose pearls and expensive attire that she couldn't compete with.

Beal says her works in Detroit show the hardships she faced while in the city.

"We see through the tragedy of the miscarriage that she suffered. We see her confronting pain and death in a way that she hadn't really before," Beal says.

And she went on to explore these concepts for the rest of her career.

"For Frida, it was a very different experience, much more difficult and much more formative than on her already established husband," Beal says.

But Beal believes Rivera has been the one to leave more lasting effects on the city.

His murals portray the industrial, hardworking Detroit of the time period and provide inspiration for Detroit's revival.

"It shows that this is the technical ingenuity, the engineering that made Detroit great, and that capacity, even with everything that's happened, is still here and I think the paintings have become more celebratory again," Beal says.

- Katrina Shafer, Michigan Radio Newsroom