by Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J. )
The Eagle, The Jaguar, and The Serpent: Indian Art of the Americas
Alfred A. Knopf, 1954
Illustration: Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957)
Covarrubias came out of the blocks running, so to speak, as a young illustrator/caricaturist in New York fresh from early success in his homeland, Mexico. He quickly made his mark in a variety of publications, resulting in a volume collecting his output, The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans (Knopf, 1925). This opened up vast possibilities as Covarrubias became one of the elite caricaturists for the biggest glossies in publishing, including The New Yorker, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. His expertly crafted style, thoroughy contemporary and sophisticated—drawing from Modern Art and not illustration trends—made him Modern’s master caricaturist, rivaled only by Europeans like Paulo Garreto. His influence in this regard was also significant (see the work of his contemporaries, and in particular, the influence he had upon a young artist with whom he shared studio space, Al Hirschfeld) and has reverberated into the present day.
Alas, art directors and editors alike were left wanting, as Covarrubias’s wide interests drew him far afield of just illustration. When he earned the National Art Director’s Medal prize money in 1930, he married his love, Rosa Rolando, and they spent their honeymoon on Bali, immersing themselves in the island’s culture. A few years later, in 1933, and with Covarrubias in possession of a Guggenheim Fellow, they returned to Bali to document the local culture, language and customs in text, drawings and paintings—and photographs by Rosa, who had learned photography from Edward Weston—that were the basis for his Island of Bali (Knopf, 1937). The success of Bali led to further traveling, drawing, painting and documenting, as he revisited the indigenous cultures of his native Mexico. His book, Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Knopf, 1946) compiled this work and advanced his efforts as an ethnologist and art historian, as dazzling a display as had his caricature work been for the smart set years earlier.
Covarrubias would eventually settle in Mexico City and teach ethnology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia and he would be appointed artistic director and director of administration for a new department at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Palace of Fine Arts.
It has been documented that Covarrubias is noted 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, in particular to the Mississippian Indian cultures. His analysis of iconography presented a compelling case that the Olmec predated the Classic Era years before this was confirmed by archaeology. This profundity was demonstrated in three books on Indian art, including the volume posted here; Mezcala: Ancient Mexican Sculpture (with William Spratling and André Emmerich; André Emmerich Gallery, 1956); and Indian Art of Mexico and Central America (Knopf, 1957).