Great news today: The Diego Rivera “Industry” murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts have been designated a National Historic Landmark. Before we get too excited and actually think this will allow us to breathe easier about the ridiculous but real threat of a forced sale of certain treasures at the DIA, this is an honor more honorary than it is concrete. (I know! Concrete!) But since the murals are embedded into the walls, I’m guessing the Big Guys will think twice once they realize removing them means destroying them and there’s no real money in rubble. I’m guessing.
In March, 1986 I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts to interview Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, two fresco artists who fell in love and married while working on those famous murals in the 1930s.
Lucienne and Stephen were in the area teaching and lecturing for a couple of weeks, so after our initial interview at the DIA, I talked to Lucienne on the phone a few times, either to clarify my notes or to add something she remembered and wanted me to include. Once we got the business out of the way, our conversations turned to the difficulty of being liberals in the Land of Reagan. (I wish I’d had the good sense to have recorded those conversations.)
Lucienne and Stephen were funny, smart, quick and totally devoted to one another. Even after all those years, Stephen still seemed in awe of the fact that Lucienne, the daughter of a famous composer (Ernest Bloch), was his wife. She knew it and used it playfully. They were quite a pair. Lucienne wrote to me after she got back to California and invited me to their ranch. I didn’t, of course, hold her to it; I I don’t know how sincere the invitation was, but the invite itself was enough for me. I still have it, along with the copy of Dimitroff’s book, which Stephen insisted I keep. When I asked him to autograph it, he was as flustered as I would have been had he asked me for mine.
I wrote this piece for the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers, where I wrote a weekly book column and occasional freelance articles. This piece was published on March 20, 1986.
When artist Lucienne Bloch was a young girl in her 20s, during the height of the Great Depression, she gave up a job teaching sculpture for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin to grind powdered paints for Diego Rivera–a backbreaking, poor-paying, thankless job at best.
She met the famed Mexican muralist in 1931 in New York, at a banquet given in his honor during an exhibition of his work. “My romantic notions of art and life, at age 22, were knocked out of joint by this burly giant of a man, and I marveled at his preposterous opinions,” Bloch wrote in a recent article for Art in America titled, “On Location with Diego Rivera”. What swayed her the most, Bloch wrote, was Rivera’s notion that man doesn’t control the machines, “The machines control us,” he told her. “We are the catalysts that transform the raw materials of the earth into energy. We are the continuation of the geologic process.”
Last week Bloch and her husband, Stephen Dimitroff, another of Rivera’s early assistants, stood in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Art, transfixed by the 53-year-old Detroit Industry murals. They stared at them, moved closer to pick out certain touches, and delighted in them as though they were seeing the 27 frescoes for the first time–as though they themselves had not worked on them. “Can you imagine the genius of the man?” Dimitroff said. “He was incredible. It was the thrill of our lives to work for Diego.”
|Dimitroff and Bloch – Rivera muralists, DIA
When Bloch asked Rivera at the banquet if he would let her grind colors, she did it knowing the muralist already had a reputation as a self-centered perfectionist who worked his assistants until they dropped, then refused to pay them a dime when a nickel would do. He had the energy of 10 men half his age, and if he worked 20 or 30 hours straight, as the Dimitroffs said he often did, his assistants worked as long, without questions. Yet there were plenty of young artists, including Dimitroff, who begged for the job.
Stephen Dimitroff was born in Bulgaria but his family eventually settled in Flint [Michigan], where he and his father worked in the auto plants. He went to Chicago to study art, but left in a fury when the art school wouldn’t recognize his three yeas of night art courses in Flint.
In his book, “Apprentice of Diego Rivera in Detroit”, Dimitroff remembers: “An overwhelming urge to reject art schools and meet a living, active artist, Diego Rivera, had propelled me by night bus and streetcar to the DIA. That early chilly November, 1932, I ran up the marble steps boldly. I winked at the bronze hulk of Rodin’s The Thinker – then the fact hit me that this was Monday, when all the museums of the world are closed!” Dimitroff cajoled the guards and finally got in by saying he had to get back to Flint “where my dad was laid off from Buick”. The guard turned away,saying, “Well, son, if I don’t see you go in I can’t stop you.”
He met Rivera and told him he just wanted to watch. He did that for days, going back each night to his $2.50-a-month room, until finally somebody let him grind colors. “It was the depression then, you have to remember, and nobody mentioned money,” Dimitroff said with a laugh. “But I was there to learn. It was what I wanted to do.”
He was finally hired when one of the assistants suddenly quit. Rivera asked to see some of his paintings and the young man was terrified. “I showed him landscapes and still lifes and portraits of my family, including one of my dad coming back from the factory with his lunch pail. [Rivera said] ‘Very fine, sketches good–but why you not paint workers’ factory? That’s interesting.’ “I was stunned”, Dimitroff said. “I didn’t know how to answer. The factory was just plain routine to me.”
At one point Dimitroff stopped working long enough to pose for Rivera, whose habit it was to choose real people for the subjects of his paintings. He appears as a pink-shirted worker on the North Wall lifting a motor block with another Rivera assistant, Art Niendorf.
|Stephen Dimitroff, cleaning his 1933 portrait – DIA 1986
Though Bloch and Dimitroff both worked with Rivera in Detroit, they didn’t meet there. “I left for New York one day, and Steve showed up in Detroit the next day,” Bloch said. They met for the first time months later in New York when Dimitroff and Niendorf came to her door begging for money. They’d been sent from Detroit to Rockefeller Center to prepare the walls of the RCA Building lobby for Rivea’s next job–three frescoes commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller depicting “Man at the Crossroads”. Rivera kept “forgetting” to send the two men their living expenses and they were dead broke. “You’re the only one we know in New York,” Niendorf told Bloch. “Can we borrow $20?” When Bloch hesitated, Neindorf said she could be chief photographer for the Rockefeller project. Bloch says now “It was the most significant $20 I ever parted with.”
Throughout her days with Rivera in Detroit (where for several months she shared an apartment with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo) and in New York, Bloch managed to find time to keep a diary. A passage, dated March 20, 1933 has Bloch looking for the Riveras in New York after they’d arrived there fresh from the Detroit project: “I met Dimi (Stephen Dimitroff) at RCA. We went together to the Barbizon-Plaza and looked all over for the Riveras. They were in (Mexican artist) Covarrubias’s apartment. They looked great! Diego is relating with hilarious gestures the scandal in Detroit about his frescoes. There are many ‘experts’ who want to remove them–or whitewash them. Puritanical groups are shocked at the big nudes. Some object that the workers in the factory scenes don’t look happy. But the greatest of the commotion is the panel which some call a ‘travesty on the Holy Family’. This is a small panel, glorifying the great medical research work of science. It shows a blond baby (The model, Bloch said later, was the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, which Rivera sketched from newspaper photos.) gently held by a nurse with a pretty white cap framing her face. A doctor, the likeness of Dr. Valentiner, director of the DIA, stands by, vaccinating the child. In the foreground are the ox, horse and sheep–the source of serums needed to control epidemics. A beautiful theme! Newspapers are having a holiday on the furor the mural causes. Luckily Edsel Ford shows real GUTS not to weaken before the hue and cry of the bigots. I’m impressed. Maybe he’s got some of his Dad’s stubbornness. Diego says that thousands of people are visiting the Art Institute who never went there before.”
Today, a half-century later, Rivera is back at the DIA in the form of a major retrospective, on view through April 27 before going on to Philadelphia, Mexico City, Madrid and West Berlin. It includes Rivera’s huge preparatory drawings–or “cartoons”, in museum lingo–found in the basement of the museum in 1979, after the Dimitroffs and others assured staff members the drawings existed and should be there.
And the Dimitroffs, major forces during Rivera’s United States stay, are back, too. They’re here at the DIA’s invitation to teach and lecture on Rivera’s Detroit frescoes. Twice a week they’re at Detroit’s Northern High School teaching the lost art of fresco painting to gifted students who “with such joy, do all the dirty work”, Bloch said.
The adults in the class come from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. “There’s a 70-year-old man who’s just marvelous,” she said, “So full of life!” Bloch herself is a 75-year-old dynamo who admitted she works all the time. “We’re only happy when we’re working,” she said, “Our work is our joy.”
The lecture schedule is filling up: Oakland, Jackson, Flint, Adrian College and more, before they head back on March 30 to their home in Gualala, 125 miles north of San Francisco, on the edge of California’s wine country. And if the year 1986 is significant at the DIA (the retrospective celebrating 100 years since Rivera’s birth is a major event designed to coincide with the DIA’s Centennial celebration), it is no less significant for the Dimitroffs. In September they celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
The two fell in love in New York while they worked on the ill-fated Rockefeller Center frescoes. After seven months of work the murals were almost completed when Rivera, an avowed Communist trying to get back in the good graces of the party, painted the head of Lenin into one prominent scene. The sponsors protested, but Rivera refused to remove it. All work stopped and the murals were eventually smashed to bits.
Earlier, as Dimitroff and the other assistants ground colors and applied the five coats of plaster needed for Rivera’s style of fresco, Bloch, the designated photographer, shot roll after roll of film. Later, when the assistants got wind of the shut-down, the photographs took on a new importance. Near the end, when RCA guards were ordered to confiscate cameras, Bloch tucked her little Leica into her blouse and entered the building with Dimitroff, saying they had last-minute work to finish up. While Dimitroff pounded on boards to mask the sounds of the clicking shutter, Bloch took the final photos of the murals–including the controversial head of Lenin.
“It was insane, that destruction,” Bloch said. “Ill never understand why they couldn’t just cover the murals with canvas. To destroy such a work. . .and to think it could have happened to the Detroit murals, too.”
Rivera went back to Mexico and the Dimitroffs never saw him again, though Bloch corresponded with Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. The Dimitroffs set up a lecture tour to discuss the “Fresco Debacle”, as they called it, and when the interest waned, Bloch signed on as a WPA artist.
“You had to take what they called a ‘pauper’s oath’, saying you didn’t have any money, ” Bloch recalled of the government project. “Steve absolutely refused to do it, even though he was so broke, but I wanted to. They asked me how much money I had and I told the truth–I said I had $60. They weren’t going to let me sign up and I said, ‘Listen, by next week I’ll have nothing. My rent is due and I have to eat.’ Well, they wanted a woman fresco painter so they let me go.”
She painted two frescoes in New York City, one at the Washington school, since torn down, and one at the Women’s House of Detention. About that mural she later wrote,” Conversations with the inmates revealed with what sarcasm and suspicion they treated the mention of art. I chose the only subject which would not be foreign to them–children–framed in a New York landscape of the most ordinary kind. In their make-believe moments the children in the mural were adopted and renamed. Such response clearly reveals to what degree a mural can, aside from its artistic value, act as a healthy tonic on the lives of all of us.”
They moved to Flint, Dimitroff’s hometown, where he worked as a machinist and later a draftsman, and she taught art classes twice a week at the Flint Institute of Art. “After we’d been there about eight years–by that time we had three kids and a house–we proposed a mural for the offices or dining room at General Motors,” Bloch said. “Something in the style of Rivera. They weren’t the least bit interested. That’s when we decided we had done all we could in Flint, so we sold the house, loaded up the kids, tents and sleeping bags into the car and headed out west.”
As they surveyed the frescoes at the DIA last week before rushing off for another speaking engagement, Bloch said, “Since those days with Diego, Steve and I have never stopped working together. And our great love is still fresco painting. We do other things out of necessity. You can’t make a living from frescoes–each one takes too long–so we’ve done book illustrations, mosaics, anything anyone asks of us.
“Sad to say, fresco painting is becoming a lost art. It’s scary to see in print how much work goes into it. It sounds more complicated than it really is. There’s a joy to it. You can see it in the students at the fresco workshop. But it is very difficult work–time consuming–and artists nowadays seem to want to do everything spontaneously. They don’t seem to understand that even the spontaneous Japanese and Chinese brush painting is done only after 30 years of study. Very disciplined study.
“So our joy is turning people on to painting frescoes again. Aside from a man we heard about in Texas, we seem to be the only true fresco painters left in this country. And that is so sad.”
( Stephen died in 1993 and Lucienne in 1999. Her NYT obit is here)