Murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts: the North Wall: top and side panels--page 4 (of 6 pages)

The north wall

The north and south walls are similar in that both depict two (of the four races) at the top, work at the auto plant in the large central section, and some of the other industries in Detroit in the side panels, and at the very bottom in the grisaille panels, the life of the worker continuing sequentially from the north wall to the south. (See the page on the so-called predella panels.)

Top panels with the Red Race (left) and the Black Race (right)

Geological strata from which the raw materials for making steel are below the monumental figures, representing here two (of the four) elements.

The Red Race associated with iron ore

For Rivera iron ore, the first thing necessary for producing steel, is like the red race, the first race in America.

Monumental sculptural figures in part based on chacmool figures from Meso-American cultures


The Black Race

Like coal, the black race, according to Rivera, through its labor gave the hardness which the carbon in the coal gives to steel.

Side panels

The left panel shows a frightening scene with insect-like figures in gas masks manufacturing gas weapons, probably bromide or chloride. Canisters of gas and an actual bomb hanging behind the figures add to the ominous quality, which is literalized by the small panel below illustrating cells suffocated by poisonous gas.

The right panel was probably the most controversial since the composition was adapted from Renaissance depictions of the Jesus' nativity (although the standing child also is reminiscent of depictions of the presentation of Jesus). The foreground animals remind viewers of manger scenes while the male and female flanking the child, and the three figures in the rear suggest Mary and Joseph with the Magi in the background. For an atheist Marxist painter to compare such secular efforts as producing vaccine with the holiest of religious subjects was seen by some at the time as sacrilege. However, scholars have also identified the figures as portraits (Jean Harlow as the nurse! and Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. as the child) or some figures as symbolic representations of various scientists. The animals, of course, are the source of the vaccines.

"Manufacture of Poisonous Gas Bombs" and "Cells Suffocated by Poisonous Gas"


"Vaccination" and "Healthy Human Embryo"

Continue to page 5--the North Wall central section.

Go to Rivera Murals Index.

Works Consulted or Quoted:
Goldman, Shifra M. Dimensions of the Americas: Art and Social Change in Latin American and the United States. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
Luis-Martín Lozano and Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera. Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals. Taschen, 2009.
Antonio Rodríguez. Diego Rivera: Mural Painting. Mexico City: Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana, 1988.
Linda Bank Downs. Diego Rivera. The Detroit Industry Murals. New York: Norton, 1999.

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© 2010 Mary Ann Sullivan. I have photographed (on site), scanned, and manipulated all the images on these pages. Please feel free to use them for personal or educational purposes. They are not available for commercial purposes.