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He may have been the greatest caricaturist of all time—he has imitators to this day—but his true passion was for a very different discipline
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
It was in Bali that the artist developed his passion for anthropological research, an avocation that would soon eclipse his affection for caricature. Even without the customary flower behind his ear, dark-skinned Covarrubias could pass for a native of the island, and with his gift for languages, he mingled easily. By the time the couple sailed for home, he had filled numerous sketchbooks with drawings of Balinese customs and ceremonies, many of which he transformed into oil and gouache paintings during the crossing.
Back in the States, Covarrubias applied for and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative work in painting in the Dutch East Indies, which contributed to his best-selling book Island of Bali . Its publication in November 1937 and the publicity that preceded it inspired a brief South Seas craze. Life magazine did a story, “Mexican Covarrubias in Dutch Bali,” illustrated by the artist’s work, the Brooklyn Museum exhibited his paintings of Balinese dancers, and Paramount’s Honeymoon in Bali capitalized on the sudden interest in the exotic South Pacific.
With such heady success, Covarrubias can hardly be blamed for losing his enthusiasm for caricature. Vanity Fair , a victim of the never-ending Depression, had folded, and neither The New Yorker nor Vogue was a dependable showcase for his caricatures. Perhaps, too, the fact that other caricaturists—Garetto, for example—were using stylistic devices similar to his own made Covarrubias feel it was time to move on. And move on he did. He packed up and took Rosa back to his family’s home in Tizapán outside Mexico City.
Covarrubias thought that by leaving Manhattan, he could simplify his life and focus on his newfound vocation of anthropologist, but his and Rosa’s home soon became a magnet for every foreign writer or artist who visited Mexico. Rosa divided her time among choreography, some excellent painting of her own, and her lunches of gastronomic fame where one might encounter such artists as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe; film personalities like Orson Welles, Dolores del Rio, Luis Buñuel, Tyrone Power, and John Huston; the choreographer Merce Cunningham; the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson; the aviatrix Amelia Earhart; and the art patron (and, some said, Rosa’s lover) Nelson Rockefeller.
Covarrubias had begun work on Mexico South , a book about pre-Hispanic Olmec art, when World War II broke out. His involvement in leftist causes, often with known Communists like Diego Rivera, caused friction in his marriage when Rosa feared the effect of such associations on their friendship with the Whitney and Rockefeller families. Another cause of connubial stress was his general irresponsibility. Telegrams and phone calls from editors and art directors in New York went unanswered. Some assignments were years overdue.
The FBI had been investigating Covarrubias since 1943; in 1950 he was labeled a threat to national security and his career began to unravel.
In 1950 Trygve Lie, secretary-general of the United Nations, asked Covarrubias to help select art for the organization’s headquarters in New York. As it happened, this would be Covarrubias’s last trip to the United States. The FBI had been investigating him since 1943, and with the country in the clutches of McCarthyism, he was labeled a threat to national security. That meant no more visas for north of the border. It also precipitated the slow unraveling of his career.
As usual he was working on several books at once, but now he also had a time-consuming position as artistic director of dance at the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. The pay was low, and the resulting cash-flow problem made Rosa unhappy. She was even unhappier to learn that her husband had fallen in love with Rocío Sagaón, a teenager in his dance company. In an operatic fury she drew first a kitchen knife, then a pistol, on the unsuspecting Rocío, but others intervened, and she succeeded only in exacerbating her husband’s ulcer.
Now it was Covarrubias’s turn to make a bad situation worse. As he and Rosa had not been married by a priest (he was vociferously anticlerical), Covarrubias chose to ignore their legal marriage and wed his new love in a Catholic ceremony. But facing two wives and several lawyers didn’t do much for his ulcers. When the pain kept him from eating, he declined rapidly. He died on February 5, 1957, in a government-run hospital, officially of an ulcerous perforation that led to septicemia, but more likely of a botched operation. Obituaries concentrated on his anthropological works, and his caricatures received relatively little mention.
To some, that judgment seems all wrong.