Comebacks: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and the City of Detroit

Few American cultural institutions stared as deep into the yawning, austerity-driven abyss of large-scale deaccessioning as The Detroit Institute of Arts. When the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, vulturous creditors circled the DIA’s collection, estimated worth (depending on the estimator) of $400 million to over $800 million. Some experts see signs of a Detroit comeback, however, but one very visible sign is the new DIA exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, a showcase of the city’s ties to Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as a tribute to Kahlo’s and Rivera’s own artistic comebacks. Few exhibitions truly capture the spirit of a city at a critical moment in its history, but Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is a show of comebacks that will have you coming back for more.

Few American cultural institutions stared as deep into the yawning, austerity-driven abyss of large-scale deaccessioning as The Detroit Institute of Arts. When the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, vulturous creditors circled the DIA’s collection, estimated worth (depending on the estimator) of $400 million to over $800 million. Some experts see signs of a Detroit comeback, however, but one very visible sign is the new DIA exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, a showcase of the city’s ties to Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as a tribute to Kahlo’s and Rivera’s own artistic comebacks. Few exhibitions truly capture the spirit of a city at a critical moment in its history, but Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is a show of comebacks that will have you coming back for more.


The road to Detroit for Rivera and Kahlo actually begins in San Francisco, where then-DIA director Wilhelm Valentiner approached Rivera in April 1931 about painting murals at the DIA. At the time, Rivera was the most famous (and controversial) muralist in the world thanks to his socialist politics and willingness to express those politics in his art. His diminutive wife, Kahlo, also painted, but few took notice at the time. Works by Kahlo, such as Frieda and Diego Rivera (from 1931; detail shown above), painted the same month Valentiner met with Rivera, drew attention based almost solely on his notoriety. The banner flying over Kahlo’s head announces who she and her husband are and the name of Albert Bender, the San Francisco friend and collector for whom the painting was made. The dual portrait later appeared at a San Francisco “women artists” exhibition, marking the first time the public could see (if not take notice of) Kahlo’s art.

Whereas San Francisco offered some of the Latino culture of their native Mexico for the Riveras, Detroit came as a culture shock. While Rivera kept busy drawing preliminary sketches for the murals in the then state-of-the-art Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant, pregnant Kahlo struggled to find her place in the Motor City. Kahlo’s 1932 painting Self-portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States captures vividly how torn the artist felt between the two worlds as well as how clearly she preferred her native country to what she came to call “Gringolandia.” The loss of her pregnancy during her time in Detroit inseparably associated her life-long physical and emotional agony as shown in the painting Henry Ford Hospital. Kahlo paints her nude body broken and bleeding on a hospital bed clearly marked “Henry Ford Hospital” as Henry Ford’s factories line up across the horizon and assorted objects (her damaged pelvis, the dead fetus, a machine of unknown purpose) hover around her body like balloons attached by thin red strings.

Kahlo frequently left Detroit to go to San Francisco or Mexico during their time there, her presence not nearly as vital as that of Rivera’s. Looking back at this time from a modern perspective, it’s difficult to comprehend her obscurity beside Rivera’s mammoth fame, as if he dwarfed her artistically as well as physically. But in many ways the “Frida” of “Fridamania” created after Hayden Herrera’s landmark 1983 biography begins in Detroit, where Kahlo suffered the most, but also began to channel that suffering into her art. Kahlo’s comeback as a force for feminism and modern art would take decades to happen, but that comeback begins in Detroit.

Unfairly, as Kahlo’s star rose, Rivera’s star sunk. In recent decades, thanks in no small part to the 2002 film Frida, in which Salma Hayek plays the long-suffering, almost angelic title character to Alfred Molina’s philandering Diego. Rivera was certainly no saint, but many still conflate his poor character with his talent. However, even before casting him as a cad, critics slapped Rivera with a Communist label, most strenuously during the “Red Scare” heyday of 1950s American McCarthyism. Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals (which you can virtually “tour” here and here) reflect a short period in American history when socialism found a fair hearing in the wake of the rampant capitalism that led to the Great Depression. Rivera murals combine realistic details of cutting-edge assembly line technology along with sympathetic portrayals of the people working those assembly lines. Such a critique of American capitalism not only in the heart of a manufacturing hub, but also cooperated with and even partially financed (by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel) seems like a fantasy today. The feeling of those years that allowed Rivera’s murals to stand also elected Franklin D. Roosevelt president and welcomed the hope of the “New Deal” that critics also saw as dangerously “socialist.”

To their credit, even in the darkest McCarthyite years, the DIA never destroyed Rivera’s murals, although they did hang a “disclaimer” during the 1950s calling “Rivera's politics and his publicity seeking ... detestable,” but also praising how “Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city.” The disclaimer ended with the suggestion that, “If we are proud of this city's achievements, we should be proud of these paintings and not lose our heads over what Rivera is doing in Mexico today.” After completing the Detroit Industry murals, Rivera traveled to New York City to paint the Man at the Crossroads mural for Rockefeller Center in New York City at the request of Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted the best muralist money could buy, if not the politics that came with him. When Rivera refused to remove the portrait of Vladimir Lenin from the mural, Rockefeller ordered him to stop painting and destroyed the mural altogether. It is a small miracle that the Detroit Industry murals survive today.

The comeback of the city of Detroit itself would be much more than a small miracle. But thanks to the resilient spirit of the natives as well as DIA’s dogged efforts to cling to the city’s heritage and identity, I’m willing to bet on their success. The exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit beautifully embodies that comeback spirit on many levels — as the place Fridamania’s birth pains made her posthumous comeback possible, as the home of Rivera’s murals that bear witness once more to his genius, but also as a place where art itself can represent the best that a city once was and can be again.

[Image: Frieda and Diego Rivera (detail), Frida Kahlo, 1931, oil on canvas, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, Gift of Albert M. Bender © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.]

[Many thanks to The Detroit Institute of Arts for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, which runs through July 12, 2015.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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