December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
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
The trouble was, he couldn’t say no to anyone. Badgered by magazine editors, book publishers, theater producers, political agitators, and college presidents to contribute his talents to their interests, Miguel Covarrubias said yes to all, forgetting that there were limits to even his energies. In time his careless acquiescences would prove ruinous, but until then he enjoyed enormous success as anthropologist, author, painter, muralist, stage designer, and—most especially—caricaturist.
Covarrubias arrived in New York in 1923, supposedly as an attaché to the Mexican consulate, a ruse concocted by his influential father to get his artist son north. The letters of introduction he carried led to a meeting with Carl Van Vechten, tastemaker for the city’s cultural elite. The young artist presented his portfolio of caricatures. “I was immediately convinced,” Van Vechten would later say, “that I stood in the presence of an amazing talent, if not, indeed, genius.” Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair , had a similar reaction and promptly commissioned several caricatures for the magazine. By the time they were published in the January 1924 issue, Covarrubias was appearing in the New York World, Tribune , and Herald . He had not yet turned twenty.
The style of caricature that the young Mexican brought north was unlike any that had come before. Not only did he eschew all contour lines—a cartoon tradition dating back to the cave drawings at Lascaux—but he employed shaded geometric shapes in his likenesses. The public, which had always suspected that cubism was something of a joke to begin with, found this deliberately comic variation irresistible. As did Crowninshield. Attracted to the absurd and outrageous, he used Covarrubias liberally both inside and on the covers of Vanity fair . Perhaps the artist’s best-remembered work in that magazine was done during the 1930s for the regular feature “Impossible Interviews,” which pitted two incongruous celebrities against each other in a surreal situation.
Not everyone succumbed to the Covarrubias style. D. H. Lawrence found his work “hideous, and hideous without mirth or whimsicality. Blood-hideous. Grim earnest hideousness.” But most, including the up-and-coming publisher Alfred A. Knopf, approved. In 1925 Knopf published a collection of Covarrubias’s black-and-white caricatures, The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans . To review the book, the New York Herald Tribune chose Ralph Barton, one of the most brilliant caricaturists of the Jazz Age. Also a contributor to Vanity Fair , Barton must have sensed that with the arrival of Covarrubias, his position of primacy in the magazine world was over, but he was nevertheless unstinting in his praise for the young Mexican.
Two years later Knopf published a more controversial book by Covarrubias, Negro Drawings . Some critics were discomfited at seeing racial characteristics caricatured but conceded that the artist’s fascination with black culture was sympathetic. The real problem with these drawings was not that they might be perceived as racist but that they weren’t very interesting. Compared with his scenes of comic madness, these “serious” drawings were commonplace. The most impressive thing about the collection was that Covarrubias had found the time to do it. Besides appearing in such old standbys as Vanity fair, Delineator, Theatre Magazine, The Nation , and Screenland , his work was frequently seen in that new magazine for sophisticates The New Yorker . In addition, he was illustrating books and book jackets, creating theater posters for productions in New York and Paris, designing costumes and sets for George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion , organizing exhibits of his work, and traveling to North Africa for fresh subjects to sketch and paint.
He even found time to fall in love. Although overweight, shy, and perpetually sweaty, Covarrubias was strongly attractive to women—among them, a beautiful dancer named Rose (later Rosa) Rolanda, whom his roommate brought home one day. They became friends, collaborators (he designed the set for Garrick Gaities , in which she starred), and lovers. They did not marry, however, for five years, by which time the world had become a far different place. The Crash of 1929 changed everything, including the page rates that magazines paid. Still, Covarrubias could afford an extended honeymoon in the South Pacific, concluding with a nine-month sojourn in Bali.
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.
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.