Published: November 19, 2007
After more than six and a half years of renovation and expansion work, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) reopens November 23, on the heels of a grand opening gala celebration that was called the “hottest party of the year.” The nearly $160 million project included major infrastructure upgrades to the historic Beaux-Arts building, renovations to the South and North Wings and construction of a 31,282-square-foot addition designed by Michael Graves.
The resulting 35,000 square feet of new exhibition space †a 30 percent increase that brings the museum’s total to 150,000 square feet †facilitates display of more than 5,000 works from the DIA’s fine permanent collection, plus additional areas to showcase special exhibitions.
The DIA is thus now able to exhibit more of its holdings as well as offering new programming to provide insights into the arts. A complete reinstallation of galleries, in which paintings, works on paper, sculpture and decorative arts are displayed simultaneously, seeks to provide visitors with a more comprehensive and engaging experience of the museum’s holdings, which total some 60,000 works of art.
The DIA’s British-born director, Graham W.J. Beal, saw the building project as an ideal opportunity to reinstall the prestigious collection in new, integrated ways that help visitors better relate to and understand the art. It looks as though he has succeeded.
“The driving principle behind the reinstallation,” museum officials observe, “is the primacy of the art objects themselves. The galleries are presented in a series of multiple, simultaneous exhibitions, each drawn from the extraordinary scope and caliber of the DIA’s collection, to convey the history of art and the stories of world culture.”
Because the DIA’s aging facilities were overdue for restoration and because the museum was unable to show stellar works from its encyclopedic holdings due to a lack of space, this renovation/expansion seems to avoid pitfalls associated with some of the many similar art museum renovations going on around the country. Works exhibited are first-rate and look better in integrated galleries. Focus remains on what is in the building, not the building itself.
What a collection this museum has to show off! The centerpiece remains Diego Rivera’s fascinating “Detroit Industry” mural, created in 1932‱933, a series of frescoes on the walls of the central courtyard that pay tribute to the dignity of working men of all races and the technologically advanced machines on which they worked in the 1930s.
Rivera was originally commissioned to paint just two of the largest panels, but he was so intrigued by Detroit and the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge industrial complex that he suggested painting murals on all four walls. It took eight months for Rivera to complete the 27 panels. Edsel Ford, president of both the Detroit Arts Commission and Ford Motor Company, funded the project for $20,899.
The cycle combines the artist’s fascination with industrial design, his admiration for North American engineering and his empathy for working people. Images on two long walls, for example, depict a Model-T assembly line and engine block plant. Vertical panels on each side of the west entrance to the court show a worker (a generalized likeness of Rivera) and an engineer (a composite of Henry Ford and Thomas A. Edison).
The “Detroit Industry” fresco cycle is widely regarded as the finest example of Rivera’s murals in the United States. He considered it the most successful work of his career. Well-preserved and still brilliant in color, this fascinating, complex composition continues to convey powerful messages.
The museum’s American collection, ranging from early colonial times to the present, is highlighted by Rembrandt Peale’s enormous (nearly 12 by 24 feet) “The Court of Death,” 1820, which depicts in graphic images the forms of death man brings upon himself through his own follies. Peale’s “Self Portrait” and his father Charles Willson Peale’s affectionate portrait of his brother, James Peale, an accomplished miniaturist, are also notable.
Within its expanded space, there is additional room for display of colonial portraits, including superb examples by John Singleton Copley and Thomas Sully, as well as Copley’s iconic “Watson and the Shark.” Other early American standouts include Benjamin West’s horrifying rendering of the destruction of human kind, “Death on a Pale Horse” and Washington Allston’s depiction of a damsel on horseback fleeing an unseen evil, “The Flight of Florimell.”
There are important landscapes by Americans, especially the Hudson River School, such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and Jasper Cropsey, and Frederic Church’s dramatic volcano, “Cotopaxi.” Also notable are a classic seascape by Martin Johnson Heade and a beautiful painting of Venice by Thomas Moran.
Other American highlights include James McNeill Whistler’s perceptive “Self Portrait” and his celebrated “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” which ignited his famous legal brouhaha with critic John Ruskin, and John Singer Sargent’s sensitive “Mosquito Nets.”
Additional masterworks are by George Bellows, George Caleb Bingham, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam and Winslow Homer. Works by these artists and others are presented in the context of the DIA’s rich holdings in American furniture, silver, ceramics, glass and other decorative arts.
Post-1945 American painting is represented by canvases by Stuart Davis, de Kooning, Frankenthaler, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Motherwell, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Andrew Wyeth.
Among the more than 400 objects in the African American collection are works by Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Beuford Delaney, Sam Gilliam, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Martin Puryear, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Carrie Mae Weems and Hale A. Woodfruff.
The 22 gouaches that comprise Lawrence’s “John Brown” series are among 35,000 prints, drawings, photographs, posters and artist’s books in the wide-ranging Graphic Arts collection. There are also more than 2,000 sketches by Thomas Cole; a comprehensive set of prints by Sloan; a large selection of Twentieth Century works on paper (by the likes of Matisse, Miro and Picasso), and numerous watercolors by German Expressionists.
European paintings run the gamut from works by Fra Angelico, Bellini (“Madonna and Child”), Canaletto, Caravaggio and Bruegel (“The Wedding Dance”), to Rembrandt (“The Visitation”), Rubens and Van Dyck (“A Family Portrait”).
In the late Twentieth Century, William Adolphe Bouguereau’s sentimental depiction of two adolescent girls communing in the woods, “The Nut Gatherers,” was voted the most popular work in the museum and it retains its popularity today.
The DIA also boasts works by Constable, Ingres, Cezanne (“Mont Sainte-Victoire”), Courbet (“Bather Sleeping by a Brook”), Degas, Gaugin (“Self Portrait”), Monet, Renoir (“Seated Bather”) and Seurat. Vincent van Gogh’s familiar “Self-Portrait,” acquired in 1922, was the first van Gogh to enter a US public collection. Another treasure is Van Gogh’s iconic “Portrait of Postman Roulin.”
Among the new installations are Seventeenth Century European baroque objects in galleries featuring “Art as Theater.” This presentation implements director Beal’s concept of making the subject more meaningful for viewers by focusing on the theatricality inherent by displaying paintings and sculpture of that period together.
The DIA was one of the first art museums to display work created by Native Americans, which had hitherto been consigned to natural history institutions, and has since compiled an impressive trove. There are American Indian religious artifacts, ceremonial garments and wool blankets, as well as objects from tribes in North, Central and South America.
The DIA can display sculpture from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome to Donatello and Bernini to Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” and Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure.”
European ivories, enamels and stained glass, and French porcelain, furniture, silver and tapestries are on view in the “Fashionable Living” gallery. Here, Eighteenth Century decorative arts have been installed according to the time of day they were used by their original owners.
The museum is strong in Middle Eastern, Islamic and Asian art, with holdings spanning more than 6,000 years. The Middle East trove reflects artistic achievements from early Mesopotamia to Islamic decorative arts. The Asian collection †2,600 objects in all †is particularly rich in works from China, Japan, Korea and India.
Nearly 100 cultures are represented in the African collections, including examples from nomadic peoples, centuries-old kingdoms, West Africa, Benin and Yoruba artists. Central and East African art features ceremonial headdresses and royal thrones, royal masks and an Ethiopian Christian triptych and textiles.
The 180,000-volume Research Library continues to serve the museum’s art historical needs. The DIA continues its tradition of hosting special exhibitions with two inaugural shows: “Julie Mehretu: City Sitings,” on view through March 30, and “The Best of the Best: Prints, Drawings and Photographs from the D.I.A. Collection,” on view through March 2.
A dozen monumental paintings by Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Michigan and now lives in New York City, document her innovative, expansive take on contemporary urban existence. “The Best of The Best” features more than 100 selected gems from the DIA’s graphic collection, which numbers 35,000 objects from 1500s Europe to today. Among the highlights are Michelangelo’s double-sided chalk and pen and ink drawing of 1508 with decorative schemes for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and Charles Sheeler’s 1939 image, “Wheels,” an icon of the world of photography.
The DIA has come a long way since its founding as the Detroit Museum of Art in 1885. Renamed the Detroit Institute of Arts, it moved to its current site on Woodward Avenue in 1927, occupying a new Beaux-Arts building designed by Paul Cret. After World War II, to handle its expanding collection, the South Wing was added in 1966 and the North Wing opened in 1971, both designed in a contrasting modernist style by Gunnar Birkets.
With its recent expansion and renovation, the DIA is poised to regain its lofty place among America’s great art museums. With its world-class collection housed in grand new and expanded facilities, the future looks bright for the museum.
The Detroit Institute of Arts is at 5200 Woodward Avenue. For information, 313-833-7900 or www.dia.org .
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