The work that Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera considered to the best of his esteemed and illustrious career isn’t a fresco on a wall in his native Mexico. Nor is it a Rivera oil painting hanging on a gallery wall, although that’s getting a bit closer to the truth. No, the work that Rivera was most proud of, and the work that he felt represented the pinnacle of his artistic craft was in fact a commissioned work at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, which features imagery depicting a factory of the Detroit based Ford Motor Company. While it may not initially sound like the Rivera that we know and love, a closer look at the work highlights the ideas and symbolism that permeated his oeuvre throughout his career.

The project came about when in 1932 Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford and president of the Ford company, and William Valentiner, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, commissioned Rivera to paint two murals for the museum's Garden Court. The only rule they gave him was that the work must relate to the history of Detroit and the development of industry. Prior to starting work on the murals Rivera spent more than a month observing workers at Ford’s car factories, and he was so fascinated that he soon requested to be allowed to paint all four walls of the Garden Court.

The request was granted and The Detroit Industry Murals were the result of Rivera’s labours, comprising a series of 27 panels that he painted on the walls of Garden Court, now known as the Rivera Court, between April 1932 and March 1933. The main panels on the North and the South walls of the court depict labourers working at the Ford’s River Rouge Plant. The other panels show scenes of advances being made in science, technology and in medicine, conveying the sense that all activities are in some way related to one another.

While the murals are now regarded as among the finest in the world, they drew the ire of political and social commentators at the time of their unveiling due to their perceived Marxist agenda. They were denounced as blasphemous by the Catholic and Episcopalian clergy, and labelled by The Detroit News as being ‘vulgar’ and ‘un-American’. Even an architect who was a close friend of the DIA designer slated Rivera’s work, stating, “Unfortunately, some years later the Board of Trustees, in a misguided moment, employed Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist, to execute a series of murals on the walls of the garden. These are harsh in colour, scale and composition. They were designed without the slightest thought given to the delicate architecture and ornament. They are quite simply a travesty in the name of art.”

The publicity that all this negativity generated ensured that huge numbers of visitors flocked to the DIA to view the offending work. Later, to ensure that no damage was done to the mural a sign was put up saying, “Rivera's politics and his publicity seeking are detestable”, which then went on to defend the artwork he created. While the Museum of Modern Art in New York may currently be in the spotlight for its Rivera reunion, it is worthwhile remembering that Rivera’s favourite work is always up on the wall in Detroit.