Miguel Covarrubias (1902-1957) was a Mexican illustrator. I love his pictures! So did Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Vogue and the other top magazines of New York where his pictures appeared in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He also did pictures for books, like those of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Pearl Buck and his own books about Bali and southern Mexico. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance.
Sometimes when you read about people from the past you wish you could go back in time and meet them. Dorothy Dandridge and Covarrubias are like that for me.
He lived mainly in Mexico City, where he grew up in the bohemian part of the city, and New York, where he became famous. But he also travelled the world. He saw San Francisco, Shanghai, Bali, Vietnam, India, Africa and Paris.
He dropped out of school at age 14 and drew maps for his father, who was a civil engineer for the government. In 1923 he left Mexico and came to New York. Vanity Fair saw his talent almost right away. He drew for them and other top magazines. They loved his caricatures of famous people.
Although he drew and painted for magazines and books, his work took on something of the style of the high art of the time. You can see something of Picasso and even Dali in his pictures. It may have looked cool then, but it looks dated now.
He knew all the best places in the city to go for drink, dance and music, many of them in Harlem. And he knew some of the most interesting people, like Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes and Frida Kahlo. He knew John Huston and Al Hirschfeld when they were still nobodies in New York.
In 1930 he married a dancer, Rosa Rolanda, and took her to the island of Bali for their honeymoon. They stayed there for three years! When he came back to New York he wrote and illustrated a beautiful book about the island and its people, the way it was before Australian holidaymakers took over the place.
I love his pictures of black and Balinese women. Some of them are pretty bad, but most of them are good, even wonderful. He did not draw them as if they were white women with a few things different. He drew them as if they were the only women on earth; he drew them as a man who loved how they looked, having seen them from living in Bali and New York.
Covarrubias loved to do those maps of countries with pictures showing what each part of the country is known for.
Covarrubias also did some wall pictures. You can still see some of them in Mexico City. He did one for the 1938 San Francisco world’s fair.
He died at 52 of blood poisoning. Rosa lived on and became friends with Adriana Williams, a writer. Williams drank in all of Rosa’s stories about Covarrubias and wrote books about him.