Back in 1929, the United States — along with much of the world — started experiencing an economic depression not seen since (though the 2008 “Great Recession” did rival it). The economy in Detroit, Michigan, was hit hard. According to Linda Downs of the Center for Public Art History:
“When the Mexican artist Diego Rivera arrived in Detroit in 1932 to paint these walls [at the Detroit Institute of Arts], the city was a leading industrial center of the world. It was also the city that was hit the hardest by the Great Depression. Industrial production and the workforce were a third of what they had been before the 1929 Crash.”
Linda Downs explains that Diego Rivera, a Mexican artist, arrived six days after a protest at the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant resulted in six people being shot by police. Known as the Ford Hunger March Massacre, the incident resulted in the United Auto Workers union being formed and leading to more progressive employment conditions by the time World War II broke out. All of this influenced Diego Rivera, an outspoken Marxist and defender of workers’ rights, in the works that would become the Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Automobiles were not the only industry in Detroit. The 1930s were the beginning of some big discoveries in the biological and pharmaceutical industries. Alexander Fleming had just discovered penicillin, and the laboratories of the day were trying to replicate his findings. The electron microscope opened the world of viruses to scientists who could now see them and classify them according to their features. And vaccines against polio and other diseases were being researched heavily.
To get inspiration for the frescoes he would paint, Diego Rivera was given tours of the different industries at work in Detroit. For one of the murals, a painting about vaccination, Diego Rivera went to the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical plant. The resulting mural depicted an infant in diapers, standing as a woman holds him and a man seemingly inoculates him. Below the woman, child and man, as well as around them, are a horse, a cow and some sheep. Above the people are three men conducting some sort of scientific work.
The panel was controversial because certain religious authorities in Detroit viewed the panel as mocking the many depictions of the Nativity, with the woman representing Mary, the man representing Joseph, the infant representing Jesus of Nazareth, and the three men representing the Kings (or Wisemen or Magi) who — according to Christian tradition — visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph shortly after Jesus’ birth. The animals, they said, represented the animals in the manger where Jesus was said to have been born. According to The Detroit News:
“Denounced as communistic, sacrilegious and anti-American, a councilman just four days after their inauguration introduced a resolution before the City Council demanding they be scrubbed off the walls (which wouldn’t work with frescoes).
None of the city’s three daily newspapers liked them. To the Detroit Times, they were an “enormity” that would hit visiting public “like a bolt.” The Detroit News called them “foolishly vulgar” and, somewhat surprisingly, “a slander to Detroit workingmen,” and called for their removal. The Detroit Free Press called them “decadent art, adding, “they cannot be taken seriously.””
The article goes further:
“[Religious leaders’] outraged reactions quickly made it into the newspapers. Other events conspired to hype the drama. An anonymous call to the museum from the conservative American Citizens League led to the Times headline, “Police Guard Rivera’s Murals After Phoned Threat.”
Art historian Hayden Herrera reports in her biography of Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, that factory workers also volunteered to stand guard, an offer that left Rivera, the ardent communist, “euphoric.”
The arts community pushed back.
Architect Albert Kahn, also a member of the Arts Commission, wrote in The Detroit News the day after the March unveiling that “Detroit Industry” was “a great, powerful piece of art,” one that “put Detroit on the map artistically.”
Ordinary Detroiters voted with their feet. On the Sunday after the opening, the Times reported “10,000 Jam Art Institute to See Disputed Murals.”
The most powerful man in the equation, Ford, kept quiet until April, when the Arts Commission voted unanimously to endorse the work.
“I admire Rivera’s spirit,” Ford reportedly said. “I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.””
“Walter Pach, artist, critic and writer, said that he had seen the paintings and had studied the “vaccination” mural particularly.
“The statement that the paintings are irreligious is utterly absurd,” he said, “The feeling that one gets from them is reverence for life. I think there is no allusion whatever to the Holy Family. If these paintings are whitewashed, nothing can ever be done to whitewash America.””
Linda Downs explains further:
“The most controversial panel in 1932 was this small right hand panel on the north wall. Here a child is vaccinated in a medical laboratory surrounded by the animals that provided the serum. Rivera took this composition from Christian nativity scenes where the baby Jesus is attended to by Mary and Joseph and honored by three wise men. To Rivera, medical technology would be the new savior of mankind. He based the image of the child on the kidnapped Lindberg baby, Mary is based on the popular movie star of the time, Jean Harlow, and the doctor is a portrait of the museum director, William Valentiner. The three scientist/wise men he referred to as a Catholic, Protestant and a Jew—ecumenical wise/medical men.”
Over the years, the Vaccine panel has been defended by some religious leaders as being an homage to the Nativity. Others have denounced it as being a mockery. Scientists have praised it as honoring a major step in public health. Artists have praised it as another example of Diego Rivera’s genius.
If you are interested in a custom print of the panel, it is available from the Detroit Institute of Arts.