Miguel Covarrubias was a Mexican artist who is best known for his work as an illustrator, writer, and anthropologist. Covarrubias’ style was highly influential in America, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, and his artwork and caricatures of influential politicians and artists were featured on the covers of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Covarrubias’ artwork displayed his keen interest in anthropology and cultural studies.
His caricatures were first published in 1920 in a National University student magazine, Policromías. From 1921 to 1923 his illustrations appeared in large circulation newspapers such as El Heraldo, El Mundo, and the Universal Ilustrado. Covarrubias’ caricatures brought him notice among the artistic circle of Mexico City, and he became acquainted with its members, including the poet José Juan Tablada, who helped arrange for a travel grant from the Mexican government which covered the cost of Covarrubias’ relocation to New York City in 1923.
Covarrubias’ incisive caricatures soon began to appear in magazines such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. A collection of his caricatures, The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans, was published in 1925. His illustrations also appeared in numerous books and magazines.
In 1930 Covarrubias married Rosa Rolanda (born Rosamonde Cowen), a stage dancer, and the two traveled to Bali for a lengthy honeymoon. Covarrubias returned to Bali in 1933 with a Guggenheim Fellowship to research the culture, resulting in his book Island of Bali. Included is a wealth of information on the daily life, art, customs and religion of the Balinese society.
In 1938 Covarrubias was invited to paint a series of pictorial maps for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. He provided Pageant of the Pacific, six murals mapping the countries of the Pacific Rim. With pictorial elements Covarrubias considered most “characteristic and representative,” each panel presents a different theme: peoples, fauna and flora, art forms, economy, native dwellings, and native means of transportation.
Covarrubias’ fascisnation with anthropology went far beyond the arts – during his time in Bali he transcribed an entire ethnography of the island culture. First published in 1937, Island of Bali is still regarded by many as the authoritative text on Balinese culture. Covarrubias is also known for his analysis of the pre-Columbian art of Mesoamerica, particularly that of the Olmec culture, and his theory of Mexican cultural diffusion to the north, particularly to the Mississippian Native American Indian cultures. His analysis of iconography presented a strong case that the Olmec predated the Classic Era years before this was confirmed by archaeology. His deep appreciation for diverse cultures was relected through a lifetime of drawings, paintings, writings, and caricatures.