Annual art and medicine lecture discusses Diego Rivera’s murals in Detroit

Thursday, July 21, 2016 - 9:53pm

The 10th annual Chang Lecture on Art and Medicine took place Thursday evening at the Ford Amphitheater at the University of Michigan Medical School. This year’s talk was titled “Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the Detroit Industry Murals” and was given by Don Nakayama, adjunct surgery professor at Florida International University who also practices as a pediatric surgeon at Sacred Heart Medical Group.

The lecture is held every year to honor the legacy of Cheng-Yang Chang, now retired, who was a clinical associate professor and the first pediatric urologist at the University. Held the Thursday of the Ann Arbor Art Fair, the Chang Lecture encourages attendees to “pause and reflect on human creativity” in the arts.

As a son of a respected Chinese painter, Ku-Nien Chang, Chang donated $1 million to establish the Shirley Chang Gallery of Chinese Art at the University's Museum of Art, and Chang also gifted more than 35 of his father’s traditional Chinese paintings to the art museum. The Chang Foundation was established in 1987 to financially aid art students in Taiwan.

Urology Department Chair David Bloom gave the introduction and said details are important in both the arts and science and medicine.

“If you look at art and science or art and medicine … (they) are meaningful only in their minute particulars,” Bloom said.

Nakayama previously wrote a piece about Diego Rivera’s work at the Detroit Institute of Arts for The Pharos — a quarterly journal published by Alpha Omega Alpha, a national medical honor society. Diego Rivera was a prominent Mexican artist known for his murals in Mexico and the United States.

Rivera’s murals at the DIA, completed in March 1933, comprise of 27 panels and cover 448 square yards, surrounding the entire court. He was commissioned by Edsel Ford, then-president of the Ford Motor Company, and William Valentiner, director of the DIA at the time.

Nakayama began his talk by describing Rivera’s murals at the DIA, focusing on a small panel that depicts orchiectomy, a surgical procedure that removes one or both testicles. The panel shows two gloved hands of a surgeon flanked by various organs, such as the brain, intestines and reproductive organs.

Nakayama said the surgery panel caught him by surprise and was curious of Rivera’s intention.

“That’s very deliberate, and Rivera doesn’t do things haphazardly,” Nakayama said. “He intended the (panel) to be there, and that is really the genesis of this talk.”

Nakayama said he learned while researching Rivera’s work that there is a pervasive theme of the Aztec culture in Rivera’s murals. One Aztec cultural aspect Rivera wove into the mural was human sacrifice, which was common during religious rituals.

Nakayama explained that Rivera portrayed the factory workers’ labor as human sacrifice — similar to how the Aztec believed that humans are sacrificed for their gods, workers sacrificed their energy for technology.

“Some scholars say that human sacrifice is just the human energy that goes into the labor,” Nakayama said.

In addition, Nakayama said that the surgery panel might also symbolize a human sacrifice as well, especially because Rivera often had sexual elements in his work. For example, Rivera painted Helen Wills Moody, a U.S. tennis champion, nude in “Allegory of California.”

Nakayama concluded by mentioning Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife. Kahlo was with Rivera in Detroit at the time and produced numerous paintings about her unhappy life in the city and her miscarriage. He pointed out how it is ironic that Kahlo’s work was done during difficult times and that they are currently well known, whereas Rivera’s Detroit murals were meant to reach the masses, but just a few people know about them outside the city.

Kenan Celtik, a visiting urology student from Hosftra University’s medical school, said he attended the lecture because he is interested in the intersection of medicine and art and he particularly liked learning about the history, including the ties between Frida Kahlo and Detroit. Kahlo produced “Henry Ford Hospital” shortly after her miscarriage.  

"Any time medicine intersects with (art), it's interesting to hear about it," Celtik said. "I liked the historical context, too. I never realized that there was so much in play with Michigan healthcare and Frida Kahlo."