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Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera finishes a mural in the lobby of the Cardiac Institute, Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by FPG/Getty Images

When Diego Rivera used his brush to honor groundbreaking healers

There has never been a time in my sentient life that I have not been aware of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera–whose 135th birthday it would have been today. As a small boy growing up in suburban Detroit, I remember my mother dragging me down to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) with promises of time spent in the medieval armor galleries. Such offers were enticing enough to lure me into the backseat of our station wagon. But what kept me inside the museum was the high-ceiling, marble-clad hall where “Detroit Industry” (1932-3)–Rivera’s frescoed masterpiece–resides. Those frescoes are a treasured part of the DIA’s permanent collection, even if this sense of pride was not always accorded them.

Edsel Ford, heir to the Ford Motor Company, became Rivera’s major patron in Detroit. Rivera, long a vocal communist, began painting his Detroit murals shortly after a nascent union called the United Auto Workers held a hunger march against the Ford Motor Company, and several workers were killed by authorities. “Detroit Industry” depicts several episodes of labor-management interaction — something the Motor City moguls did not want on the DIA’s walls. When the frescoes were unveiled in 1933, they drew controversy and outrage — including over a scene where a Christ-like child receives a vaccine — but also crowds.

Men Working in Car Factory

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, this section of Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit Industry fresco represents production and manufacture of the 1932 Ford V-8 motor at the Rough plant. Photo via Getty Images

A year later, Rivera experienced similar opposition as he was completing a mural for the lobby of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Rivera called it “Man at the Crossroads” — a three-panel mural displaying workers in the centerpiece, flanked by less than flattering depictions of capitalism and more than positive scenes of socialism. What was objectionable to the Rockefellers, it is said, was a portrait of Lenin amid Russia’s annual May Day parade — which was not in his original sketches. Rivera was paid and ousted from the site, his work covered up. Months later it was destroyed over a weekend; employees returned to the building to find a newly plastered wall. Rivera called it “an act of cultural vandalism.”

Art-inclined Detroiters who visited the DIA during the McCarthy era recall seeing a large sign posted outside the Rivera gallery, lauding the frescoes’ artistic values but also warning visitors of the “detestable” politics displayed therein. Luckily, art prevailed: Edsel Ford fought off any suggestions that he destroy the “anti-capitalist” murals. “Four massive walls, 27 individual paintings, and nine months of labor-intensive work,” is how the museum currently boasts about the murals in its current catalog.

For me–now as then–the Rivera frescoes are simply miraculous. Every square inch on all four walls is transformed into a series of masterpieces. One walks through a depiction of the old Power Plant No. 1 at the Ford Motor Company Rouge River Plant. Once inside, the viewer is treated to the artist’s view of what was once the largest factory in the world, a virtual city within a city of production. It is impossible not to become immersed in Rivera’s dynamic portrayal of a new industry that changed our lives — and not always for the better. On one end of the factory, we see how workers took receipt for raw materials by the ton. Then, a battalion of muscled, faceless men put them all together on the famed Ford assembly line so that millions of cars drove out the other end of the factory each year. There is also a portrayal of the now-defunct pharmaceutical house of Parke-Davis of Detroit at the dawn of the era of Big Pharma.

It was not until I was in medical school that I was introduced to Rivera’s 1944 fresco “The History of Cardiology” at the National Institute of Cardiology in Mexico City.

In 2005, art historian David Lomas authored an essay in the British Medical Journal discussing the mural’s history and meaning. To begin, Lomas noted, it was commissioned by Dr. Ignacio Chavez, a Mexican cardiologist of great renown. The artist and the doctor probably met at the Colegio Nacional, an honorary academy which included some of Mexico’s most prominent artists, writers, philosophers and scientists, Lomas said.

Chavez wanted a fresco to honor the great men of his profession and he believed that Rivera was just the artist to do it. Chavez wrote to Rivera that the picture “should indicate the ascending trend of knowledge and if possible, should express how slow and difficult has been the advance, how watch of those men had to fight routine, prejudice, ignorance, and fanaticism…if you could find a way, it would be beautiful to paint this group of men moving, striving in an upward march.” Unveiled on April 18, 1944, Rivera’s mural did not disappoint in its whiggish portrayal of such progress.

To portray this pantheon of heart doctors, Rivera added flights of steps and scalloped niches to the composition so that the eye follows an ascent all the way to a painted doorstep that reveals the newly opened Institute of Cardiology.

Rivera also displays Andreas Vesalius, the anatomist who in 1543 wrote the first accurate atlas of the human body, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (On the fabric of the human body in seven books).” In the mural, we see Vesalius dissecting a human heart that looks disconcertingly real.

In another portion, Rivera portrays Michael Servetus (Miguel Serveto), the Spanish physician and theologian who in 1553 dissected and described the path of the pulmonary vein and artery before being burned at the cross for being a heretic.

Elsewhere, there is William Harvey, whose 1628 “De Motu Cordis (An anatomic study of the movement of the heart and blood),” overturned Galen’s erroneous teachings by correctly describing the full circuit of arteries and veins.

Rivera also nods to modern researchers, as well as indigenous healers. In one panel, he portrays Aztec healers who found herbal infusions of yolloxochitl helpful for patients with congestive heart failure. The active ingredient in this “heart flower” was digitalis, which did not appear in the Western medical literature until 1776 when William Withering wrote on the cardiac powers of the foxglove plant.

The major theme in Rivera’s grand murals was that in an equitable world, the advances being made in science, technology and medicine must be accessible and affordable to all citizens. A flawed man in so many respects — to say nothing of his tumultuous relationship with artist Frida Kahlo – Rivera had a valid point when it came to how he saw health care for all as a human right.

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