Graham Beal

Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts
Graham Beal headshot

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Graham Beal Podcast Transcript
Music Credit: Excerpts of guitar music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernández, used courtesy of Mr. Hernández.
Graham Beal:  We know that people come into museums not in a way to escape the real world but we know they come in to see what is good and to have that sense reinforced that there is beauty, there is light, there are things that are done for joy and that is really, I think, what art on one level stands for.
Jo Reed:  That is Graham Beal director and CEO of the Detroit Institute of Arts and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
This week, we marked the kick-off of the 6th season of Blue Star Museums—the NEA, Blue Star families and the department of defense joined forces with 2000 museums across the country to offer free admission to active service members and their families throughout the summer.  The Detroit Institute of Arts has been with the program from its beginning. Founded in 1885, the museum quickly became a cultural center for Detroit.  The DIA's collection is among the top six in the United States, comprising a multicultural and multinational survey of creativity. 
Service members coming to the Detroit Institute of Arts during the first half of summer, will be available to see the museums spectacular new show, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit.  The show brings together nearly 70 works of art that demonstrate the evolution of these two extraordinary artists’ at different points in their careers. The two came to Detroit because Diego Rivera was commissioned to create a mural for the museum. Rivera created a masterpiece:  A majestic 27 panel work, known as the Detroit Industry cycle which  served as  the artist’s tribute to Detroit’s manufacturing base and its labor force.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is the brainchild of Museum director Graham Beal who was convinced the year the artists spent in Detroit was pivotal to both their careers.   
Jo Reed:  Can you tell me what the story is behind this exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit?
Graham Beal:  Well, about ten years ago I thought it would be a good idea after the many decades that have passed and all of the stories, some true, some not true that have grown up around this couple I thought it would be time to sort of on the one hand set the record straight. But on the other hand present what really was a dramatic, quite a dramatic event in the history of Detroit and art world.
Jo Reed:  Well, we certainly think of or associate Diego Rivera with Detroit but Frida Kahlo less so. Why the decision to include her here?
Graham Beal:  Well, when she arrived here as you say she was completely unknown. She was referred to as Mrs. Rivera. She was asked if she was, in fact, an artist and she responded on one occasion, “Yes, the greatest in the world.”  But they were actually opposite in the sense that Rivera was at the height of his fame. Most people and he regard the Detroit industry murals as his finest mural cycle. He was feted around the world. He had just had the only second one-artist show at the Museum of Modern Art the previous-- the only other one was Matisse a couple of years earlier. And he was gregarious and he loved being in the U.S. and Frida was exactly the opposite. She was 20 years younger. She was completely unknown. She was just finding her way as an artist. And she disliked all things Yankee, Gringo and she really did not like being in Detroit. She had a very uncomfortable time here socially. She didn’t feel that she was with the people she wanted to be with. And then she had the horrible experiences of the loss of her child, the loss of her fetus and her mother died and she had to pick her way across the States back down to Mexico for her mother arriving home just a very, very short few hours after her mother passed away.
Jo Reed:  If it’s fair to say, which I think it is, Diego Rivera tended to paint quite heroic work. Frida Kahlo really painted her pain very often. What happened to her when she was a teenager?
Graham Beal:  She was in a bus when it was rammed by a trolley and the hand rail, one of the hand rails of the trolley pierced her abdomen and went all the way through her abdomen and she had broken bones and she was at one moment declared dead. And she was seventeen or eighteen at the time. She survived, obviously, but also in a way miraculously and she lived with this pain and with this sort of not exactly a deformity but a ruined spine for the rest of her rather short life.
Jo Reed:  And it was after that accident that she really turned to art. As far as I know she was going to be a doctor before then, oddly enough.
Graham Beal:  Yes, yes. What she did, she took up drawing as part of her recovery period and then she had this-- suddenly decided that she was going to somehow get Rivera and she was very bold and she went off to show him her paintings and Rivera probably a little bit mystified agreed with her that she had talent and that she should pursue this. And she not only pursued her art she pursued Diego as well.
Jo Reed:  And I think it’s fair to say he was pretty happy to be pursued?
Graham Beal:  I would think so, yes. I mean he was one of the great womanizers of the twentieth century.
Jo Reed:  How did the idea of the industry mural emerge? Where did this come from?
Graham Beal:  The director of the DI at the time William Valentiner a German scholar, a Rembrandt scholar but a man with wonderfully wide tests, friends of the German expressionists. He was in San Francisco visiting Helen Wills Moody, the tennis player, who was, I think, having a fling with Rivera at that time and he met Rivera who was painting murals in San Francisco. They’re both still extant. And he invited Rivera to paint murals in the DIA in a garden court, a winter garden with big blank walls that had always been intended to have some kind of mural and Valentiner asked Rivera who accepted immediately and Valentiner came back to Detroit and the great patron Edsel Ford immediately agreed to sponsor. And so in April 1932 Rivera and Frida Kahlo arrived in Detroit and he went to work.
Jo Reed:  If you had to describe Diego Rivera as a painter, how would you describe him?
Graham Beal:  Well, he is very definitely a realist. But everything is simplified to some degree and he has an absolutely wonderful sense of form. He just draws a single line, as it were, and you already feel the roundness of whatever it is that he’s depicting. An astonishing sense of composition. The Rivera murals themselves are a masterpiece of clarity of design and within that is complexity. So very, very extraordinary natural abilities and trained in Mexico and in Europe over many years.
Jo Reed:  Now, he was probably one of the most famous communist artists and one cannot help but notice the irony of becoming the darling, at least for a while, of the Rockefellers.
Graham Beal:  Yes. I mean his communism was idiosyncratic to say the least and he was thrown out of the party. And he initially supported Trotsky so that got him kicked out of the official community party. But he was always-- in fact, Frida herself got upset that he was so willing to take American money and to dally with the capitalists. And Rivera when he came to the States worked in Detroit and then went on to New York. He did not want to go back to Mexico and it was a source of huge contention that ultimately in a way led to the breakup that Frida felt she could only live in Mexico where humanity resided. And Rivera wanted all of the perks that came with being a famous artist in the U.S.
Jo Reed:  Let’s talk about the murals themselves. What do they depict?
Graham Beal:  The two main panels which was the original commission depict the creation of an automobile on the north-- starting on the north wall with the smelting of the steel at the very top of the panel. And then following two miles of assembly line all the way through over to the other wall where you see the assembly of the body work of the automobile around the internal components that you’d seen on the north wall until right out in the very middle of that panel in the far, far instance is the only complete vehicle in the whole mural. It’s almost a “Where’s Waldo” kind of experience looking for it, a little red car and I think it’s significant that he pained it red. And then when he showed Edsel Ford the two main panels Edsel Ford was so pleased we don’t know how this happened but somehow Rivera just happened to have plans for all of other 25 panels as well. And so there and then they renegotiated Rivera’s contract and he painted all of the panels. And the other panels are more symbolic even allegorical and they address the good and the bad of the industrial process. It’s a series of oppositions, man and machine, organic/inorganic, as I say good and bad, the north and the south, the old Mexico, the new America, it’s all woven into this. And to me the intellectual achievement of what Rivera himself-- he had no help. He did it all himself. The intellectual achievement is equal to that of the artistic achievement.
Jo Reed:  You have a catalog that goes with the exhibit and I’m looking at it even as we speak and it really is a beautiful, beautiful piece of work. But it really is impossible to understand the sense, the capacity of him as an artist without actually being at that museum and looking at those murals.
Graham Beal:  Yes. I mean people do gasp when they walk into the room for the first time. And we made the decision-- at one time we thought that we might-- because Rivera was so important in the U.S. in the 1930s, at one point the exhibition sort of moved into being more about Rivera’s U.S. universe and much more about Rivera. But in the end I made the decision that this was a human interest story not a cultural interest history story and so we went back to the original idea.
Jo Reed:  Say what you mean a human interest story not a cultural interest story?
Graham Beal:  Well, when you start talking about Rivera and his influence on the American mural, the WPA artist, artists like Jackson Pollock and those you start talking about style and about artistic influence and it becomes much more of an intellectual exercise. When you just focus on the rich tapestry of the eleven months that Rivera and Kahlo spent here it is very much a human interest story. There is the style. There is the art, their difference in style and the art and the way Frida developed. But it is really about two human beings who felt passionately about one another, who felt passionately about art, who believed that art and life were not separate that they were inextricable and all of those things come together from Detroit’s point of view in this sort of eleven month focal point.
Jo Reed:  I just want to go back to the murals for one moment, what technique did he use?
Graham Beal:  He used pure, true fresco. He worked in-- when the Mexican Revolution had established itself it wanted to have the equivalent of the medieval stained glass windows, which was a people’s bible. It wanted to have works that proclaimed the glory of the Mexican revolution and Rivera was paid for two years to work in Italy and learn the true fresco technique which he brought back with him. And it entails working in the end after a lot of preparatory work it entails painting into a thin layer of wet plaster and you can only do as much as the plaster stays dry for the day. Giornata it’s called, a day’s work, in Italian. And that’s the technique that he used here and elsewhere and it’s not exactly indestructible but it’s impervious to light. When the Rockefellers decided-- when they dismissed Rivera for his audacity they had to jackhammer it off the walls. You could paint over it but it would still be there.
Jo Reed:  We’re talking about New York now, when he went to New York.
Graham Beal:  Yes, after Detroit. He got away with a few jabs at capitalism here but good natured overall. But he just went overboard when he was in Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Center. Usually the Lenin is cited as the official reason that they dismissed him but showing John D. Rockefeller who was something of a teetotaler, I think, holding a martini glass surrounded by chorus girls is not a way to endear yourself to your patrons.
Jo Reed:  <laughs> And at that period of time Frida Kahlo is I don’t want to say coming into her own as a painter but really developing a style as a painter.
Graham Beal:  No, I think you’re right. She did a couple of-- a few paintings before she came here and you can see that Frida is there in a portrait that she did, for example. It has wonderful attributes in it but it really is in Detroit with the “Henry Ford Hospital” the incident that because of the miscarriage or whatever that she followed up on what was actually Rivera’s advice, her husband’s advice, was make yourself the center of your art. And as you said, the Frida Kahlo that arrives here is really unrecognizable and the one that leaves here you can’t mistake any of her paintings for anything other than the Frida Kahlo that we know today.
Jo Reed:  Can you describe Kahlo’s painting, “Henry Ford Hospital?”
Graham Beal:  It shows a naked Frida Kahlo on a bed at an angle, a strange angle that doesn’t quite coincide with the ground and the ground itself is a very, very bleak industrial landscape with what is obviously a short hand version of the Rouge River Ford Plant in background. And on the bed is a written-- on the bed stead written the words, the frame written the words Henry Ford Hospital. Blood is coming from the area of her pelvis on to the sheets of the bed and attached by long red sort of umbilical lines are half a dozen objects. There’s a car engine. There’s a snail. There’s an actual fetus. There’s a body made of machine parts. And so it’s a very, very strange picture and it really just screams pain and loss.
Jo Reed:  And the tear.
Graham Beal:  Yes. And it’s all done in the very clear bright colors of the Mexican retablos tradition that Frida was working from.
Jo Reed:  And her painting was seen as surrealist which was a term she really bristled at.
Graham Beal:  Yes because she did feel that it came out of her Mexican heritage. And but the surrealist movement was in full swing. André Breton, the surrealist pope, was always eager to annex good artists to his cause and there were women artists working in Mexico at that time who were working fully within the framework of surrealism. And Frida’s work looked as if it fit but as you said it was not something that she personally embraced. She felt that surrealism was an intellectual and European phenomenon and she was all about Mexico.
Jo Reed:  Another painting by Frida Kahlo that you have in this exhibit which, again, one really does need to see is “A Few Small Nips” which is just a vision of horror.
Graham Beal:  Yes. Yes. And felt to be somewhat autobiographical. Some think responding to the fact that Rivera-- she knew that Rivera was not going to be faithful to her but he just inflicted so much pain on her. This famous episode of a man who murdered his girlfriend by stabbing her repeatedly and then when he was arrested said, “I thought it was just a few small nips,” and that’s the Frida Kahlo shows the woman stabbed to death and the man standing over her with a banner saying just in Spanish, “A few small nips” and it is a horrific picture. It’s right up there with the kind of work that George Grosz and the German expressionists have been doing.
Jo Reed:  Because she brings the painting as she does with her “Dorothy Hale” painting outside the canvas itself and there are blood splotches all around the frame.
Graham Beal:  Yes, as if the frame itself has been stabbed, exactly and there are dents, the blood-- there are the blood spots but there are stab marks there as well.
Jo Reed:  It’s such a powerful painting. And when did she paint that?  Did she paint that in Detroit?
Graham Beal:  No, that was painted I think within a year of returning to Mexico.
Jo Reed:  So, Frida Kahlo came in not having found her style and left Detroit not there yet but nonetheless completely on the road to who she would become as an artist?
Graham Beal:  Yes, to all intents and purposes it was I’ve used the word chrysalis. This is where she emerged. Certainly the painting of “Her Americas”, her standing in a beautiful pink dress with one foot in Mexico and one foot in the U.S. no one would fail a slide test in saying that yes that’s by Frida Kahlo. She still developed as an artist, her technique improved but all of the ingredients are there that the very sharp focus, the bright colors, the intensely autobiographical nature of it and the various levels of discomfort and pain that she managed to inject into so many of her pictures.
Jo Reed: It’s an interesting twist of fate that right now Frida Kahlo is the more renowned of the two artists.
Graham Beal:  Yes, I mean that is one of the big ironies. And this is distressing, one of the reasons-- to some Mexicans, one of the reasons that we got such support for the show was that there is feeling that Rivera needs to be reestablished as Mexico’s finest twentieth century artist. But Rivera was the artist of his time and his particular glorification of whatever it ultimately is propagandist material. It was official art. It has faded a little bit whereas Frida is the ultimate I don't know what the right word would be but the ultimate Facebook artist. It’s all about her. It’s very, very personal. It seems to be very spontaneous. And it is in its own way, although there have been some wonderful American artists who were influenced by her in the seventies and eighties, her work is inimitable.
Jo Reed:  Yeah. In looking through what I wrote in the sideline is I look as his work and it’s clearly brilliant but it looks like a historical artifact rather than something that speaks to us now in the present day. And Frida Kahlo’s work seems very present.
Graham Beal:  Yes, she is an artist of our time and Rivera is astonishing but in many ways it is a bit like looking like up at Michelangelo’s ceiling or Pinturicchio’s nearby paintings and it needs to be decoded. It needs to be explained because it was about something else and it was about a different time.
Jo Reed:  What’s the response been?
Graham Beal:  It’s been wonderful, absolutely marvelous. People are lining up. We’re having great, great attendance. In light of what we’ve just discussed a number of people have said to me and I know it’s happened to others that, “I haven’t seen the Frida show yet,” that’s the name that catches people. That’s what people want to see.
Jo Reed:  That is interesting. But are more people coming in to the museum because of this show?
Graham Beal:  Yes, this counts as a blockbuster. We’re having a tremendous attendance. We’ve already seven weeks in we’ve already exceeded the attendance of the two major exhibitions that we had last year.
Jo Reed:  Well, that must be wonderful for you because it’s been such a challenging time for Detroit and for the Detroit Institute of Arts, in particular.
Graham Beal:  Yes, it has been. It has been. It’s been quite a period but although for a while this show was put on hold I was determined that whatever happened that this show would happen even if it was the last show. But we got the tax passed so we have financial security and we have the bankruptcy behind us so it’s a tremendous celebration. And it gives new meaning to Rivera’s murals because you look at it now not as an elegy of a Detroit that is dead and gone but you look at as sort of almost a symbol of what can be again.
Jo Reed:  And in reading the catalog I didn’t realize that when Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo came to Detroit the city was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Graham Beal:  Oh yes, that was one of the reasons that some people were upset. What are they doing bringing this foreign artist here when people can’t eat and paying him lots of money to paint a picture in the new temple of culture?  So yes, I mean the museum was in very bad shape. It’s not widely known but Edsel Ford was actually paying the salaries of staff members because the city had run out of money.
Jo Reed:  Well, the Detroit Institute of Arts is part of the Blue Star Museum program, can you tell us a little bit about that program?
Graham Beal:  Well, it’s for U.S. servicemen. Every summer May to September we are free to any service members, men, women and their families. And we’ve been a part of the Blue Star program since its inception in, I think, 2011. And last year we had 700 individuals come into the museum through the Blue Star vehicle.
Jo Reed:  Why did the museum sign up? Why did it seem like that would be something you would do?
Graham Beal:  Well, I would love for the museum to be free to everybody but this did seem a way of making a statement that this is in its own way about civilization. We stand for a particular kind of civilization so it was certainly an easy thing to do. But since then and I don’t have and I haven’t had this passed out but with the passage of the property tax in exchange for that all the inhabitants of the three counties, the tri-counties that pay the tax get in free anyway. So the lines have become a little bit blurred because one has to assume that service people coming are likely to come from this region if not the three particular counties.
Jo Reed:  Mm-hm. In a broader, more philosophical way, with service members and their families, with Detroit that’s going through hard times, art can really be very meaningful for people going through times like that. It’s not really a luxury per se.
Graham Beal:  No, I mean I have to say my father was a veteran of World War II and he went to London on the National Health Service all paid for and he would take my sister or me with him in these day trips and we would visit free museums. And this was really something that was meaningful. And we know that people come into museums not in a way to escape the real world but we know they come in to see what is good and to have that sense reinforced that there is beauty, there is light, there are things that are done for joy and that is really, I think, what art on one level stands for.
Jo Reed:  What brought you to art, a life in art?
Graham Beal:  Actually, as I said, my father was a wounded vet and my mother also had a little bit of an artistic background. But he took up painting from his bed and my sister and I that was one way from a very early age that we would be with our father. We’d sit alongside as he painted and we would draw. My sister’s just retired from being a professor of drawing at an English university. So it was part of our lives from the very, very beginning. And as I say these trips to London just reinforced the sense that the museums were free, that they were yours, that you could just walk in. These were not places of privilege. They were there for everybody.
Graham Beal:  Great. Thanks.
Jo ReedThank you.

Graham Beal takes us behind the scenes of the new exhibit Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera in Detroit and shares his support for the Blue Star Museum Program.