(This version of the story corrects museum that loaned 'Henry Ford Hospital' painting in paragraph 11.)
By Serena Maria Daniels
DETROIT (Reuters) - The Detroit Institute of Arts, renowned for its Diego Rivera murals, is set to open a public exhibition of his works and those of his wife, Frida Kahlo, this month, the biggest since the museum's collection was threatened in the city's bankruptcy.
"Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit" will feature nearly 70 works by the Mexican artists and is the first to focus on the 11 months they spent in Detroit in 1932 and 1933, when Rivera worked mainly on the "Detroit Industry" murals.
Rivera's preparatory drawings for the 27-panel "Detroit Industry" frescoes, which have not been shown in nearly 30 years, will be part of the exhibit opening on Sunday.
The idea for the exhibit arose more than a decade ago, but uncertainty over the city-owned institution's finances and other setbacks delayed the process, museum director Graham Beal said. Dozens of works were obtained on loan from museums in the United States and Mexico and from private collectors.
"When we knew we had a life in front of us, we returned to the idea of the Rivera exhibition, based on the Rivera murals," Beal said.
Curator Mark Rosenthal teamed with experts in labor, medicine and the city's Mexican-American community to give visitors a sense of what life was like for the artists in Depression-era Detroit.
Rivera's grandson Juan Coronel Rivera told reporters it was daunting to research his grandfather but that the project helped him better understand his contributions to modern art.
His research included reviewing archives of letters Rivera wrote to Kahlo when she left Detroit to be with her dying mother in Mexico, he said.
"When the mural was finished, it was the most important piece of modern art in the United States," Rivera said.
Rivera, whose murals celebrating revolutionary themes often met with controversy in the United States, considered the "Detroit Industry" murals his best work and they are among the museum's most celebrated pieces.
In Detroit, Kahlo, a then unknown artist plagued by fertility issues and a distaste for American culture, developed her most recognizable works, including "Henry Ford Hospital," which is on loan from the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco, México.
The painting shows a mourning Kahlo in a hospital bed with a developed fetus outside her body but still attached by an umbilical cord. One hand holds a paint palette, representing her unrealized chance at motherhood and her role as an artist.
Reporting by Serena Maria Daniels; Editing by Peter Cooney