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The kid was alright — Covarrubias at 100

16 January 2005

Mauricio, our Bagdad correspondent at the Thorn Tree Mexico Branch (working with the elections folks) brought to mind Miguel Covarrubias, who… among many, many other things… was an expert on Indonesia. I’ve been meaning to post something about the artist, but haven’t gotten around to it. Gee, we’ll just have to settle for Susannah Glusker’s article about him for now…

100 years of Covarrubias
BY SUSANNAH GLUSKER/The Herald Mexico El Universal Martes 14 de diciembre de 2004 Nuestro mundo, página 4

Miguel Covarrubias, one of Mexico’s most versatile artists living in the 1920s, is being honored on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Three art exhibits are being launched to feature his work, and there is an unconfirmed rumor that his ballets will be produced.

Covarrubias was known as “El Chamaco,” which basically means the “Kid.” His nickname came from the fact that he was “just a kid” amidst an impressive older group of artists that included the muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros as well the photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti among others.

El Chamaco dropped out of school at the age of 16 and went to work for the Communications Ministry as a draftsman for maps. He won a prize for his work and received a scholarship to go to New York. It is in New York that his career as a cartoonist and an illustrator takes off. The editor of Vanity Fair recognized Covarrubias’ talent as a master caricaturist and bought his work, including many covers.

Covarrubias’ subjects were as timely and amusing as his drawings. He captured the mood and flavor of Harlem, the jazz singers and the nightclubs later published in the book Negro Drawings. “Impossible Interviews” was among the most successful of his series of caricatures. Here Chamaco juxtaposed figures such as the baseball player Babe Ruth with the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selase, or the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud with actress Mae West.

For Vanity Fair, the artist imagined Emily Post, the “Miss Manners” of the 1920s,
relaxing after a hard day of excruciatingly correct behavior.

Covarrubias was also successful as an illustrator during this same period. He did marvelous drawings for books by U.S writer Pearl Buck and others.

Covarrubias married the U.S. dancer Rose Rolland and they embarked on a honeymoon to Bali financed by a Guggenheim fellowship. His drawings of the people of Bali, especially the women, are colorful, cheerful and beautiful.

Chamaco painted what he saw and is credited with being the first visual anthropologist. He took courses at Columbia University in New York with Franz Boas and used his talent to document people and their customs. He took this talent one step further and wrote about the people and places that he observed. Interestingly, he wrote and published only in English, not in Spanish, his native tongue. Some of his work has since been translated into Spanish.

Covarrubias returned to Mexico to document the people of Tehuantepec in his book Mexico South. It was meant to be a first of three volumes but unfortunately the other two were not completed or published. He did not limit his activity to books, but branched out into the field of dance and museography.

From the Istmo de Tehuanatepec

His interest in dance was intimately bound with the new love of his life, the young dancer Rocío Sagaon. He designed sets and costumes that made the stage come alive as if it were a moving mural.

The Mexican government recognized Covarrubias’ talent and put him in charge of the newly created department of museography. This was the beginning of the Mexican tradition of creating exciting exhibition spaces such as the Museum of Anthropology.

There are wonderful Covarrubias murals still standing in Mexico City; one is downtown at a coffee shop on Madero Avenue next door to the Ritz Hotel. Another that was in the Hotel Del Prado, demolished after the 1985 earthquake is being restored, one at the National Museum of Anthropology and a fourth, the folklore and costumes of Mexico will be transferred to the new Museum of Folk Art once it’s opened.

The versatile Chamaco will be honored for his books, caricatures, illustrations, costumes and murals in Mexico. The Museo Soumaya in the south of Mexico City leads with an exhibit of the drawings and caricatures owned by the distinguished intellectual Carlos Monsivais. The Museo Mural Diego Rivera follows with “Impossible Interviews,” Negro drawings, scenes from Bali, markets and illustrations. It is a good sampler of his work as an artist in the United States and Mexico. The Museo Estudio Diego Rivera- Frida Kahlo in San Angel will feature Covarrubias’ work in ethnology and as a caricaturist at the end of January.

Covarrubias’ unusual spirit of transmitting the beauty and color of many parts of the world is refreshing. You can enjoy it here or if you happen to be in the environs of Austin, Texas, step into the Harry Ransom Research Center and view some great work on exhibit there.

Dr. Susannah Glusker teaches Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century and Women of Mexico at the Universidad Iberoamericana. She is the author of “Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own.”

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