Miguel Covarrubias – Mexico’s 20th-Century Renaissance Man

Day 199 of Colourisation Project – November 22

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, 22 November 1904 in Mexico City, Miguel Covarrubias, was painter, caricaturist, illustrator, ethnologist and art historian.

If you don’t recognise the name, you will surely recognise his beautiful highly stylized body of work.

Covarrubias’ simple linear style of drawing captured the essence and feeling of his subject matter in a playful and entertaining way, a quality which came to be a hallmark of his work. Covarrubias was highly influential in America, especially throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Photographer: Nickolas Muray – Miguel Covarrubias and Rosa Rolanda – Colourised by Loredana Crupi

His humorous caricatures of the Hollywood elite and other cultural figures, were for years a mainstay on the covers of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines, providing a unique window into the cultural and political milieu of the time. It was his work for the magazines that made him not only famous but well respected by his peers.

A man of extraordinary genius, energy and artistic talent, his life-time achievements were many and varied. Although Covarrubias is probably best remembered as a celebrity caricaturist, he was much more than his prodigious and distinctive art. He was a quintessential humanist and veritable polymath, who made important contributions in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, theater and dance.

Covarrubias was also an art historian, author, and ethnologist sharing his appreciation of foreign cultures with the world through his drawings, paintings, writings and caricatures.

He was associated with the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance. He illustrated The Weary Blues for Langston Hughes, who commented that Covarrubias was “the only artist I know whose Negro things have a ‘Blues touch about them.’” His own book, Negro Drawings published in 1927 draws on his observations of the residents of Harlem and is significant for documenting the emergence of the new spirit that rose out of Harlem in the twenties.

A Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to study and document a vanishing way of life on the Indonesian island of Bali. In 1937 Covarrubias published his seminal book, a thorough ethnography of the Island of Bali, full of his sketches and his wife, Rosa’s photographs. It remains today one of the most important and detailed examinations of Bali’s art, culture, religion, economy, and geography. The book and particularly the marketing that went along with its release, contributed to the 1930s Bali craze in New York. The island at the time was also home to a colorful array of expatriate artists and scholars including German musician and surrealist painter, Walter Spies.

The breadth of his intellectual interests and extensive travels inspired Covarrubias to explore other cultures. He became an authority of indigenous Mexican art and culture and an important figure in the preservation of ancient sites and artifacts. The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent: Indian Art of the Americas (1954) was the culmination of his work and research into the art and culture of his native Mexico and larger Mesoamerica.

In the mid-1930s, Covarrubias and his wife Rosa returned to Mexico to live. During the latter part of his career, Covarrubias focused on researching the ancient cultures of the Americas, particularly those in Mexico becoming a leading anthropologist, ethnologist and educator. He taught at the National School of Anthropology and History in the 1940s and 1950s, and as head of the Department of Dance at the National Institute of Fine Arts, he introduced modern dance to Mexico City’s audiences.

Covarrubias had amassed a prodigious body of work when he died unexpectedly from complications resulting from diabetes in Mexico City, in 1957. He was 52 years young.

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 “From the beginning I was amazed at [Covarrubias’s] ability to size up a person on a blank sheet of paper at once; there was a certain clairvoyance in this.”  –  Carl Van Vechten 1925

 

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