Advent in Art 08: Diego Rivera's Detroit Mural

Philippa Watt
Sunday, 21 December 2008



Vaccination & Healthy Human Embryo, 1932-33




I’ve actually chosen a picture I don’t like.

I think it’s ugly.

It makes me feel uncomfortable.

I was never interested nor good at biology – so a mucousy drawing of a supposed healthy human embryo makes me feel a bit sick.

This is certainly a painting I would not like to have on my wall at home.

But I wanted to do something a bit different and present a Communist telling of the Nativity scene. Which sounds like a contradiction in terms I know.

The artist, Diego Rivera, thanks to the cult of Frida Kahlo, is perhaps most famous outside Mexico for being Frido Kahlo’s husband. However he is to date the most revered painter in Mexico and the founder of the Mexican Muralist movement.

And a Communist. Inspired by the utopian stories that were being fed from Russia after the 1917 Russian Revolution of races living in harmony, working selflessly towards common goals (gulags had not yet been heard of) Diego became a passionate member of the Mexican Communist party.

So when he was given the opportunity to decorate a room in the Detroit Institute of Arts he leapt at the chance to honour his communist mentors, Marx and Lenin, who recommended that the best way to reach the masses with the Communist message was to use recognisable forms and then lead them to the future.

So the nativity – perhaps one of the most recognisable themes/ scenes in art – was a perfect vehicle for Diego to preach Communism to the non-converted.




But before we look at this work in more detail –let’s see how Rivera came to be invited to paint Detroit’s largest and most influential mural.

After the end of the Mexican Revolution of 1920 - the new Mexican government wanted to create a new national culture – so they commissioned Diego – a well known painter in Mexico at the time – to decorate public buildings with scenes that they hoped would give illiterate peasants a binding, idealistic sense of what it meant to be Mexican.


However Diego had never painted a mural in his life. So he cleverly persuaded the Mexican govt to fund a trip to Italy so he could study the masters of the fresco technique up close and personal. Fresco – which means fresh in Italian – is the application of paint onto wet plaster and is the ideal mode to decorate large surfaces – the most famous frescoes are probably Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel.

To Rivera, all public art in Italy was Christian propaganda – the church using the visual medium to promote a heavenly paradise and an earthly power. He noted these influential artistic techniques – techniques that capture a viewer’s attention and draws them in to learn more – aware of how he could mimic these forms to promote a socialist agenda. He was particularly influenced by the large, solid figures of early Renaissance artists Giotto and Piero della Francesco – as well as the rich colours and spatial composition of High Renaissance greats – Michelangelo and Botticelli.

His fresco knowledge now complete he returned to Mexico to hone his skills. Happily for Diego, the fresco style itself fitted in perfectly with Communist work practices because it was a communal work process – to create a large fresco a team of people was required as the paint had to be applied while the plaster was still damp. This working class image of groups of men drawing workman wages and forming a union suited his reputation much more than the common view of the artist as a bourgeois painter in his studio producing portraits of nobility to hang in elite galleries. Instead Diego was painting accessible subjects in public places. In various govt buildings he painted scenes of the joy and sorrow of peasant life – statuesque, brightly clad locals toiling in fields and feasting at the end of the day. A simple, unified, productive life.

Interestingly, in 1929 when the Mexican Government officially outlawed the Mexican Communist party, Diego’s fellow communists (quite rightfully so I think) expected Rivera to stop work on the govt buildings he was painting – but to their shock Rivera continued to paint – and so they expelled him from the party.


The Commission


This didn’t seem to bother Diego that much, in fact word of his mural painting skills had reached America, and in particular had captured the attention of William Valentiner – the new director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Valentiner shared Rivera’s philosophy that great art comes from the common man – and like the Mexican murals – he wanted Rivera to reach the public with terms familiar to them – in this case – industry. At this time - Detroit being the birth place of Ford – was the industrial hub of the States.

Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, being the good businessman that he was – knew when he was onto a good thing, and buddying up with Valentiner, he funded the fresco cycle which he touted to be a celebration of technology (some may say a celebration of Ford and a type of advertising). However Diego did not see technology and the business it had created as ideologically inconsistent with Communism. He was invigorated by the energy of the Ford Motor Plant and the teams of workers who activated the machines. As this was before the age of automated machines – Diego saw the plant as an ideal mix of man and machine working as one. Technology was what man needed – not an ineffective, opiate God in the sky.

He began the cycle July 1932 and finished March 1933 in height of Great Depression – and he believed the cycle as a whole to be his best work ever.


The work


The nativity scene ‘Vaccination’ is just one panel of 27 panels.

This work also appeals to me because I like to see looking at art as a detective looking for clues. The more you look at a painting like this, the more details, the more story you can discover.

On first glance the painting looks traditional enough. As mentioned before, Diego obeyed the Communist manifesto by using what appear to be familiar nativity scene motifs to lure in the viewer.

Compositionally the scene is fairly traditional. Like many nativity scenes the eye is first drawn to Jesus as he stands centre stage – lit from above - with a white cloth protecting his modesty, propped up by Mary in saintly white and the archetypal ass, bullock and lambs clustered in the foreground. A male is to the right – as our eye flicks across we instinctively assume it must be Joseph – and the 3 men behind must surely be the 3 wise men. So far, nothing unusual about this.


However the antenna starts to waver when we examine the Joseph figure a little more closely. What has he got his hand? And what is he doing to poor Jesus’ arm? And what is he wearing – is that a tie under his smock? And hang-on – he actually looks very similar to the three wise men who are also dressed in white jackets and ties. And is that a nurse’s uniform Mary is wearing?

This is where Rivera gets a bit clever. Yes they are the 3 wise men but of a 20th century kind. Merchants may have been the wise men of biblical times but scientists were the wise men of Rivera’s time.


Suddenly the scene no longer resembles a manger as we first might have been led to believe – but a scientific laboratory. Jesus is the patient, Mary the nurse, holding the child in place as Joseph, the doctor, vaccinates Jesus. The three wise men-scientists in the background are doing medical research of some type. It is difficult to see in this slide but they are actually dissecting a dog – you can make out the dog’s paw here – one peers into a microscope while his colleague observes over his shoulder, another conducts some kind of experiment using a glass bowl. Contributing to the scientific setting stand two test tubes to their left. Suddenly the animals seem more like laboratory aids for further experiments then a trio of animals in a stable.

Rivera has cleverly changed the scene from one traditionally of warmth and comfort to cold, clinical science.

Often in nativity scenes, Jesus is held protectively in his mother’s arms or swaddled cosily in a manger, or type of cot – this painting shows Jesus being protected in a different way – protected by science against the diseases of the world.

The healthy human embryo is the scientific opposite to Mary’s virgin birth. Unlike some of the other nativity scenes we have seen this month – there is no warm light, no otherworldly glow, this is a very specific diagram of a growing baby. One viewer described it as an “unpleasantly startling” image, like an “immense page from a text book.” For the scientifically knowledgeable out there – you perhaps may have already identified that the sac is surrounded by an egg, sperm, multiplying chromosomes, red and white blood cells and 6 forms of bacteria – tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria, cholera, tuberculosis and tetracoccus. I certainly didn’t though!

Once you get your head around that you discover that there are even more layers to this work


Like Renaissance nativity scenes where one of the biblical figures would have a facial resemblance to the patron and /or his wife or some other famous person of the time – some duke, or king or queen, Rivera has modelled these figures on personalities of the 1930’s.

Jean Harlow, the actress, is the nurse, Diego’s patron – the man who commissioned the work, Dr William Valentiner is Joseph, the scientists are three Nobel prize winning scientists whose accomplishments to do with bacteriology I won’t go into as it’s a bit beyond me, and Jesus is modelled on Charles Lindbergh – who was perhaps the 1930’s equivalent to Madeline McCann - a child from a wealthy family who had been kidnapped just prior to Diego starting the work – the boy’s kidnapping had been a huge media story occupying the front page of newspapers for 10 weeks before the child’s body was found. Though, whether viewers would have made the connection I’m not so sure. As you can see, Jesus looks more like a blow up doll than a human boy. You can read into that what you wish, I see it as emphasising that Jesus’ role is purely one as vaccine receiver rather than celebrated deity.

When the space was open to public view - the painting caused a scandal among the religious community – it was condemned by Catholic and Episcopalian clergy as blasphemous, and they demanded the work be destroyed.

Even a song was written about the adverse reaction – here are some of the lyrics (‘Rivera was a Jolly Lad’ lyrics song 1933 Franklin M Peck)


At last the job was finished and

The people flocked inside

The clergy took one hasty look

And they were horrified!

They pointed shaking fingers at

The panel of diseases

And said the vaccinated child

Was no one else but Jesus!


However Edsel Ford and Valentiner ignored this outcry and the scandal died down. Like most artistic controversy it did more good than harm, and visitor numbers swelled. Diego remained uncharacteristically quiet about his intentions.

So - in terms of reflection – what does this work mean to me? Well as I said at the beginning of this talk – I think it’s ugly, even disturbing, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable looking at it, but I admire Diego’s lateral thinking and I think it’s very clever the parallels he has drawn between the traditional nativity of a mysterious, seemingly impossible virgin birth, and the clinical, examined, analysed, tested and proven world of science.

I think nowadays people are a lot more open to the idea of religion and science co-existing – and I don’t believe the gods need to be separate. For example – I believe God in the scientist made the vaccine –it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

But that’s a whole other topic for discussion – and our focus today is Christmas.

Merry Christmas and thanks for your time.