Theme/Style – Modernism, figurative art, illustration, political cartoons and caricatures
Media – Oils, gouache, watercolor, lithography
Artistic Focus – Miguel Covarrubias, revered in Mexico as one of the country’s most important 20th-century artists as well as one of a small group of Mexican artists who were well-known in the U.S. during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, had a unique artistic sensibility that was informed by his passionate interest in ethnography, archaeology, and cultural diversity. A master of color technique and the use of gouache, Covarrubias created dramatic figurative works as well as murals, illustrations, and sophisticated political caricatures; and as a dedicated humanist he made important contributions to anthropological history through his scholarly written work.
Career Highlights –
- Born José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud in Mexico City in 1904, Miguel Covarrubias attended the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, and after graduating at the age of 14 he started producing caricatures and illustrations for the Mexican Ministry of Public Education, and also drew maps for his father, who was a civil engineer.
- Covarrubias moved to New York City at the age of 19 on a grant from the Mexican government, and was welcomed into the city’s literary and cultural elite (known as the “Smart Set”) as he soon gained recognition as an illustrator for Vogue, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, Covarrubias’s Art Deco-like caricatures and depictions of musical night spots helped define the Jazz Age, and brought black culture into mainstream American consciousness.
- He also designed sets and costumes for the theater, including La Revue Negre starring Josephine Baker, and illustrated works by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.C. Handy, among others.
- Covarrubias and dancer/choreographer Rosa Rolanda became a couple, and traveled together extensively in the mid to late 1920s, including a trip to Mexico with Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, where they visited with Covarrubias’s close friend Diego Rivera, and Weston taught Rosa photography.
- In 1931, Covarrubias exhibited paintings at the Valentine Gallery in New York and drawings with Peter Arno at Gump’s Gallery in San Francisco.
- Covarrubias’s growing interest in cultural anthropology took him and Rosa, now married, to Bali; and again accompanied by Rosa, Covarrubias returned to Southeast Asia in 1933 as a Guggenheim fellow. His research of the Balinese culture resulted in his acclaimed book Island of Bali, published in 1937, which was illustrated with his artworks and Rosa’s photographs.
- He exhibited in a print show with the American Artists Group at the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1936, along with Conrad Buff, Ernest Fiene, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and others.
- Covarrubias painted six murals for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) in San Francisco, collectively titled “The Pageant of the Pacific.” Displayed in the exposition’s Pacific House, the murals were detailed maps depicting native life in the Pacific Basin. Reproduction prints of the murals were issued in a portfolio, and are said to have had the largest sale of any fine art prints in America to that date. In 1943 the original mural panels were deposited on loan at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
- Covarrubias returned to Mexico City in the early 1940s, where he continued to paint, illustrate and write, publishing Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in 1946 and The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent: Indian Art of the Americas in 1954. His home, Tizapán, would become a hub for visitors from around the world, including Dolores del Rio and Nelson Rockefeller.
- Covarrubias became an expert on the ancient Olmec civilization, taught ethnology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, and was appointed artistic director at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where his focus was the research and preservation of traditional Mexican dance forms.
- Miguel Covarrubias passed away in Mexico City in 1957. In 1959 his GGIE mural panels were donated to San Francisco’s World Trade Club by the trustees of Pacific House. Five mural panels were restored and installed in the city’s Ferry Building (the sixth panel’s whereabouts are unknown); but in 2001 they were again put into storage when the space was renovated. In 2006 the murals were loaned to Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology and other venues, and on their return to San Francisco one panel entitled “The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific” was placed on extended loan with the de Young Museum in 2008.
Selection of Works by this Artist
Bibliographic references are available upon request.