Produced in conjunction with the Ransom Center’s exhibition “Miguel Covarrubias: A Certain Clairvoyance,” this volume contains color plates of virtually all the items in Nickolas Muray’s collection of twentieth-century Mexican art.
New York in the 1920s and 1930s was a modernist mecca that drew artists, writers, and other creators of culture from around the globe. Two such expatriates were Mexican artist and Renaissance man Miguel Covarrubias and Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray. Their lifelong friendship gave Muray an entrée into Covarrubias's circle of fellow Mexican artists—Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, Juan Soriano, Fernando Castillo, Guillermo Meza, Roberto Montenegro, and Rafael Navarro—whose works Muray collected. This outstanding body of Mexican modernist art, now owned by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin, forms the subject of this beautifully illustrated volume.
Produced in conjunction with the Ransom Center's exhibition "Miguel Covarrubias: A Certain Clairvoyance," this volume contains color plates of virtually all the items in Nickolas Muray's collection of twentieth-century Mexican art. The majority of the works are by Covarrubias, while the excellent works by the other artists reflect the range of aesthetic shifts and modernist influences of the period in Mexico. Accompanying the plates are five original essays that establish Covarrubias's importance as a modernist impresario as influential in his sphere as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Jean Cocteau were in theirs. Likewise, the essays reestablish the significance of Nickolas Muray, whose success as a master of color photography, portraiture, advertising imagery, and commercial illustration has made him difficult to place within the history of photography as a fine art.
As a whole, this publication of the Nickolas Muray Collection vividly illustrates the transgression of generic boundaries and the cross-fertilization among artists working in different media, from painting and photography to dance and ethnography, that gave modernism its freshness and energy. It also demonstrates that American modernism was thoroughly infused with a fervor for all things Mexican, of which Covarrubias was a principal proponent, and that Mexican modernists, no less than their American and European counterparts, answered Pound's call to "make it new."
- Introduction: The Covarrubias Circle: Nickolas Muray's Collection of Twentieth-Century Mexican Art (Kurt Heinzelman)
- Nickolas Muray, His Friends, and His Art Collection (Peter Mears)
- The Essential Tact of Nickolas Muray (Mary Panzer)
- The Magenta Rebozo (Nancy Deffebach)
- Miguel Covarrubias and the Vogue for Things Mexican (Wendy Wick Reaves)
- Greater Mexico, Modernism, and New York: Miguel Covarrubias and José Limón (José E. Limón)
- Color Plates with Biographical Information
- Fernando Castillo
- Frida Kahlo
- Guillermo Meza
- Roberto Montenegro
- Rafael Navarro
- Juan Soriano
- Rufino Tamayo
- Miguel Covarrubias
This book contains color plates of virtually all the items in Nickolas Muray's collection of twentieth-century Mexican art. It thus fulfills the purpose of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Imprint Series, jointly sponsored by the Ransom Center and the University of Texas Press, to produce in print format unpublished work—both textual and visual—from the Ransom Center's collections. An essay by the Center's Associate Curator for Art, Peter Mears, describes the provenance of the Muray Collection, the importance of the individual works, the interest of the collection as such, and its relationship to other Latin American holdings at the University of Texas.
The occasion for the publication of this book is also the Ransom Center's exhibition of the artistic and cultural work of the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, whose productions comprise 90 percent of the Muray Collection. Indeed, Miguel was the godfather of Muray's daughter, who was given the unusual (for a girl) name of Michael—nicknamed Mimi—and to whom the present volume is dedicated.
The motivation for the exhibition "Miguel Covarrubias: A Certain Clairvoyance" is, in turn, the centennial celebration of his birth on November 22, 1904. For most of the past century the dominant Mexican artists, in the eyes of both critics and the general public, have been Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, artists who attained their earliest renown as muralists. These men have been belatedly joined by Frida Kahlo, whose current fame, especially as promulgated through a single iconic photograph by Nickolas Muray, is the subject of one of the essays below (all of which are original to this volume). The aim is not to shoehorn Covarrubias into this upper echelon, or even to install him in the next tier of artists, which includes, most notably, Rufino Tamayo and Roberto Montenegro, as well as Fernando Castillo, Guillermo Meza, Rafael Navarro, and Juan Soriano, all of whom are represented in Muray's collection. Rather, we wish to reexamine, from the historical vantage of a new century, the pervasive cultural role of Covarrubias and his circle in their own time as well as explore their legacy for us today. A crucial member of that circle is the understudied yet equally important cultural impresario Nickolas Muray.
Covarrubias, in many ways, has been lost to official—meaning largely Anglo—cultural histories of the modernist era, but he has not been forgotten in Mexican, or even perhaps in Mexican American, cultural consciousness. The problem is that few who do remember Covarrubias recall his exact importance, although they may call up one or two famous incidents from his life and career—an "Impossible Interview" in Vanity Fair, say, or his work on Mexico's pre-Hispanic cultures. One question that both this book and the Ransom Center's exhibition wish to pose is how and why Covarrubias's specific accomplishments have passed from consciousness. Why don't we know more fully this successful and, in his time, extremely influential man of art and letters?
One answer is that Covarrubias worked in some of art's most ephemeral forms of representation. Caricature, the genre in which he gained his greatest critical recognition and public fame, has a long and important history as a specifically Mexican genre—witness the great practitioner of the revolutionary era, José Guadalupe Posada. But caricature's endurance usually depends as much on the caricatured subject's successful withstanding of the test of time as it does on the skill of the caricaturist in rendering that subject. Caricature is not considered the equivalent of large-scale murals or even oil portraiture (although Covarrubias also composed both murals and some very fine easel paintings in oil). Moreover, many of Covarrubias's other accomplishments in design, arts administration, book illustration, and as a collector are activities insufficiently grand to interest anyone but social historians. Even in the fields of museology and archaeology, the singular collection of Olmec artifacts that Covarrubias and his wife acquired has been dispersed among the holdings of Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology in such a way as to lose the "collection" as a unique cultural icon, the mark of an inspired and particularly learned collector. While it is true that some of Covarrubias's designs for the public exhibitions he curated still exist (in the archives of the Universidad de las Américas at Puebla, for instance), these do not depict exhibitions of his own collections. At the Museum of Anthropology, "Covarrubias" is an honorific name for one wing of the building, not for a collection that can be publicly displayed or even archivally retrieved.
Covarrubias's own work has enjoyed, in this hemisphere, only five exhibitions since his death in 1957. The first, as Adriana Williams points out in her excellent 1994 biography of Covarrubias (also published by the University of Texas Press), was put together hurriedly in Mexico City shortly after his death; there would not be another public exhibition in Mexico until 1981, almost a quarter-century later. The first major showing of Covarrubias in the United States, in 1984, appeared under the auspices of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and focused exclusively on the caricatures. A full retrospective then arrived in 1987 at the Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, along with an accompanying catalogue addressing all areas of Covarrubias's interests and achievements. This volume, Miguel Covarrubias: Homenaje, an amply illustrated series of essays by diverse hands, was at the time the best book-length treatment of Covarrubias's impact on twentieth-century Mexican art, to which one must now add Miguel Covarrubias: Artista y explorador (Mexico City: Editions ERA, 1993) by Sylvia Navarrete, who was one of the contributors to the earlier Homenaje. Finally, more than a decade later, in 2000, an exhibition at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco drew on Adriana Williams and her husband's personal repository of Covarrubias materials.
The Ransom Center's exhibition is not a true retrospective; still less is this book an exhibition catalogue. The concern here is to explore the idea of a cross-fertilization between modernist artists working in different media, from painting and photography to dance and ethnography. In further examining the media transgressions that defined modernism, wherein artists drew influences and developed techniques across the boundaries of discrete aesthetic genres, this book expands upon the Ransom Center's earlier book and exhibition, both titled Make It New: The Rise of Modernism. Indeed, "Covarrubias: A Certain Clairvoyance" opens almost a year to the day after the modernism exhibition. Because that earlier exhibition's version of modernism depended exclusively upon the Ransom Center's own holdings, the principal emphasis fell on what might be called the east-west axis of modernism—its British/French/American nexus. But that, of course, is only part of the story. As José E. Limón demonstrates in one of the essays below, modernism also had a south by southwest axis. On this axis, Covarrubias's apartment in Greenwich Village, his later studio on 45th Street, and his house at Tizapán outside Mexico City were essential coordinates.
Modernism may have begun in the 1890s, but it reached ascendancy in the period between the two world wars. Many critics have regarded 1922 as a high-water mark for the various aesthetic ideas and artistic techniques that reshaped the new century's understanding of creative practice and theory. One of the triumphs of modernism was surely the way it reassessed the cultural value of art itself, including for the first time lowbrow and commercial art as well as the various artifactual contributions of so-called primitive societies. Reading 1922, Michael North's important book, is less an investigation of the actual cultural events of 1922 than it is a cross section of attitudes, including both implicit cultural presumptions and explicit socioeconomic mores, that remained largely unexamined by contemporary commentators—the "ideology" of 1922, so to speak. It is therefore worth reviewing what actually did happen in that totemic year.
It was the year of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, of course, and of James Joyce's Ulysses—two of the four or five seminal works of the century. But there was also Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tales of the Jazz Age, Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, Paul Valéry's Charmes, and Edith Sitwell's Façade. E. A. Robinson's Collected Poems won the Pulitzer that year and A. E. Housman's Last Poems was published on the other side of the Atlantic, but these were anti-avant-garde examples of what modernism was not. Modernism was better represented by the appearance of Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which redefined the nature of anthropological inquiry, a subject vital to Covarrubias's imagination; the English translation of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, a breakthrough work in the philosophy of meaning; Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass and Joan Miró's The Farm, both cornerstones for new kinds of pictorial representation; Louis Armstrong's arrival from New Orleans to join King Oliver in Chicago, a vital melding of different jazz idioms, ideas of virtuosity, and ensemble playing—subjects that Covarrubias would brilliantly document in his Harlem sketches; and finally the construction of a new concrete tennis stadium on Church Road at Wimbledon, where Helen Wills, later the subject of one of Covarrubias's most famous caricatures, would shortly introduce the modern baseline power game she had learned playing against men on the West Coast. In 1922 Covarrubias, only eighteen years old, still living in post-revolutionary Mexico, was helping to curate two major exhibitions, one on Mexican arts and crafts, the other on folk arts.
The next year, 1923, he arrived in New York City.
By all accounts, he took the city by storm. Within the year he was publishing in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. One should remember that New York City of the 1920s and 1930s was not simply a spawning ground for American-born artists waiting to decamp for Europe. It was itself a thriving expatriate community, a rival of London and Paris, that attracted many artists from Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere (including some, like Hart Crane and Langston Hughes, from the American hinterlands of Ohio and Kansas). They came for many of the same reasons that Europe attracted Americans.
Nickolas Muray was such an expatriate, having arrived in 1913, as was his friend Winold Reiss, the Austrian-born painter and decorator who was to create the bulk of the illustrations for Alain Locke's revolutionary collection The New Negro in 1925. So were poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, the young Galician immigrant who in 1919 published his first book in New York in Yiddish; the Swiss-born, French-speaking Frédéric Sauser, who wrote under the pseudonym Blaise Cendrars; and the Spanish visitors Juan Ramón Jiménez in 1916, Leon Felipe in the mid-twenties, and Frederico García Lorca in 1929.
Not all of these visitors were true expatriates who intended to stay in the States or were fleeing persecution. Many, like Covarrubias, were simply curious, adventurous, or just looking for an economic break. They were absorbing; they were observing; they were not necessarily rooting themselves. Covarrubias, who came, saw, and conquered the city, returned to Mexico frequently, even when he "lived" in New York.
Nickolas Muray, on the other hand, never intended to return to his native Hungary, where he faced conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, among other things. An innovative photographer doing pioneering work in the color carbro process, Muray was also, like Covarrubias, immensely successful as a commercial artist. Perhaps this is one reason he has not been studied by either art or cultural historians. Although now overshadowed by photographers like Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, and Margaret Bourke-White, Muray may fit in with the next group of important photographers, also undervalued—people like Anton Bruehl, Lejaren a Hiller, Adolf De Meyer, and Paul Outerbridge. There is no biography of Muray like Williams's of Covarrubias, only biographical sketches in various encyclopedias or collection catalogues, and there is virtually no sustained piece of secondary critical study. The essay below by Mary Panzer, the former Curator of Photography at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, is the first publication of its kind; that is, an essay of significant length which analyzes the oscillations of Muray's own critical and popular reputation as a photographer, while also unveiling new characteristics of his personal life—the qualities that made him both a financial success and a beloved friend of artists.
The point is that Covarrubias and Muray, overlooked though they now may be, were both major players in New York City's particular urban version of transnational modernism. For Muray, who was himself well-networked, Covarrubias was the center and source of all connections Mexican or Latino. It was through Covarrubias that Muray met Frida Kahlo, with whom he would have a lengthy love affair. We do not know how Muray came to acquire all of his artworks (presumably his Kahlos are directly from the artist herself; they may even refer to him). It is significant, though, that Muray owned at least one piece by most of the notable Mexican artists of the century, and that invariably his one example is a major work by that artist. One presumes that his oarsman here was Covarrubias. This is not to suggest that Muray did not have a fine eye of his own, only that Muray's collection does not exhibit the intensity of focus or thematic connoisseurship of collectors such as Jacques and Natasha Gelman, for example.
In an essay below, the scholar José E. Limón, Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, identifies what he calls a "Greater Mexico" in twentieth-century art and letters and a concomitant Mexicanophile discourse. In another essay, Wendy Wick Reaves, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Portrait Gallery and author of Celebrity Caricatures in America (Yale University Press, 1998), the most comprehensive study of the subject, identifies a "vogue for all things Mexican" in the twenties and thirties. Turning to Covarrubias in particular, one is tempted to speak of this period immediately following the Agrarian Revolution in Mexico as the "Mexican Decades." Certainly Covarrubias participated in and even presided over the cultural scene in that thirty-year span from the mid-twenties to the mid-fifties as few others did, whether Mexican or not.
There is a graphic illustration in the 1987 Homenaje volume that depicts a genealogical tree of Covarrubias's accomplishments (Figure 1): anthropologist and archaeologist; author of many books; scholar in traditional or folk art, primitive art, the art of masks, and the social sciences; ethnographer, cartographer, cosmogonist, and museologist; professor; dance and museum administrator; art collector; magazine designer and book illustrator; sculptor and caricaturist. The only thing missing from this list is set and costume designer, one example of which is represented in Muray's collection. I think it could be argued, in respect to the Mexican Decades, that Covarrubias was a modernist impresario par excellence, at least as important in his sphere of influence as Pound or Eliot, Apollinaire or Cocteau, Kandinsky or Stanislavsky were in theirs.
What made Covarrubias different, though, was that he was highly successful in commercial terms. As with Muray, in fact, one wonders if Covarrubias's early and intense popular successes partly explain his subsequent decline in critical reputation in the last half of the twentieth century. Although we now know better than ever how even the most difficult artworks of the modernist era were skillfully packaged and marketed, Covarrubias—who was not a "difficult" artist but who was more avant-garde in his techniques than he is usually given credit for being—was a master marketer. Approached by the Container Corporation of America in the late 1930s to do a series of advertising images, Covarrubias not only executed that contract but managed to extend it through 1947. A similarly grand commission was to paint six huge cartographic murals for the San Francisco World's Fair in 1939.
But nothing compares to the skill with which the so-called Bali craze was created, which lasted into the early war years and perhaps was still informing such works as James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific even after World War II. To put it benignly, the "craze" resulted from Covarrubias making his Balinese anthropological work available to the public. But he did so in carefully constructed increments—"glimpses," his biographer calls them—of text and image, published here and there in small and large venues alike, in both print media and exhibition spaces. Thus began, his biographer concludes, a kind of fashion frenzy: his Balinese cover adorned the last issue of Vanity Fair in February 1936, his cover for Vogue in July 1937 was awarded "Best Magazine Cover of the Year," Life magazine did a full spread on what they called his "Dutch Bali" book, and the Franklin Simon department store feted Covarrubias in a show called "Bali Comes to Franklin Simon." And all this before his book Island of Bali appeared in mid-November 1937.
Another of Covarrubias's most popular and critical successes, which appeared in the pages of Vanity Fair, was the so-called "Impossible Interview," illustrated by him and scripted by his collaborator Corey Ford, in which two people who could not possibly meet are forced to converse. One of the most notorious was between John D. Rockefeller and Joseph Stalin. And yet, the concept of "impossibility" in terms of Covarrubias's own circles of friendship and influence is a malleable one. Covarrubias and his friends, like many artists of the time, were Communist sympathizers; the original collection of Muray's art offered at auction after his death was titled by the auction house "Covarrubias and His Distinguished Comrades." One comrade, Diego Rivera, knew and admired Trotsky, who spent his last years in Mexico, part of the time with Rivera and Kahlo. When Rivera wanted to include the figure of Lenin in his commissioned mural for the Rockefeller Center in New York, the Rockefellers objected. When Rivera refused to remove the likeness of Lenin, the mural was dismantled. Yet Nelson Rockefeller, John D.'s son (and portrayed in the movie Frida as the one who executes the dismantling), was a good friend of the Covarrubiases. In one photo, he is seated at Tizapán between Rosa Covarrubias and Frida Kahlo where Trotsky, if not Stalin, could easily have been seated as well.
Thanks in large part to the friendship of people like Muray and Weston, the Covarrubias circle is well documented in photographs, so often we can literally see who is who (Figure 2). An imaginary photograph of the implausibly, almost impossibly large circle of Covarrubias's friends would include—in addition to the scion of one of America's greatest capitalist families as well as the founder of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia—such literary figures as D. H. Lawrence and his New Mexican compadres, plus Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; theater and movie people such as Fredric March, Orson Welles, Claudette Colbert, John Huston, Dolores del Rio, and Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Playhouse coterie; musicians such as W. C. Handy and Ethel Waters; and of course photographers and writers (such as Carl Van Vechten), artists and dancers (such as Georgia O'Keefe and George Balanchine), and people from the publishing and museum worlds (such as W. A. Barr, the first director, in 1929, of the new Museum of Modern Art; Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, and George Macy, founder of the Limited Editions Club). This latter group in particular gave Covarrubias highly visible and fiscally rewarding, but also aesthetically important, assignments, such as Macy's commissioning of illustrations for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which Covarrubias regarded as a defining spiritual moment.
I conclude by focusing on Covarrubias as author because it was in his written work that he engaged an anthropological concept controversial both in its own day and today, though perhaps for different reasons. This concept, which Covarrubias himself called cross- or circum-Pacific culturation in his 1954 book The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent, encompasses the idea that archaic or primitive societies borrowed artifactual and symbolic elements from one another. For Covarrubias, who had in mind mainly Pacific Rim cultures, the idea implied actual physical contact between the peoples he studied, whether Meso-American, Malaysian, North American Indian, or third-millennium BC Chinese. Leaving aside for a moment the validity of the concept from the disciplinary perspective of the anthropologist, this transculturation contested the principle of discrete tribal coherence or—to translate into the geopolitics of Covarrubias's own time—the ideology of nationalism, the premise that particular tribal or national identities are distinct and inviolable . . . and that some are superior to others.
The political context is not incidental to the controversy, then or now. Again using 1922 as our prism, in that year the Irish Free State was founded, Mussolini formed a Fascist government in Italy, Mustafa Kemal declared Turkey a republic, and the Soviet states bonded together as the USSR. (Although Covarrubias might have considered this last event anti-nationalist, the founding of a true socialist republic, in retrospect we can see that the USSR was a union so hegemonically weighted toward certain Soviet states—Russia in particular—as to warrant comparison with other contemporary assertions of nationalistic dominance.) Under the conditions of nationalism—and these are the conditions of postwar life from the 1920s perhaps to the present day—one must make an argument that to be Irish, say, is to be antithetical to the English. Or, alternatively, that to identify as Italian is to swallow up local distinctions separating Triestine from Amalfian. For Covarrubias, however, transculturation was a more complex balancing of factors, rather like the gardens and interior spaces of Tizapán as designed by Rosa Covarrubias, with their eclectic but decidedly "Mexican" aura accented by non-native plantings from all over the world, their pre-Columbian jades set beside African and Asian idols, and their bright contemporary paintings placed next to primitive tin and traditional terra-cotta objects.
Perhaps an even better example is Rosa's kitchen. As a cook (and her prowess was legendary) she was not afraid to assert cross-cultural influences—what culinary lessons she had learned in China or Cuba, for example—against an essentialist view of a "natural" culinary taste (or culture). Put this way, transculturation may resemble what is now called in cooking circles "fusion." But fusion cuisine often obliterates the indigenous integrity of the dish. Transculturation is more like traditional Mexican cuisine itself, whose history Rosa researched and championed: a merger of diverse elements that became recognizably "Mexican" and yet remained distinct. The vermicelli may be Italian, the chocolate Nahuatl, but the dishes that use them are Mexican. Such is the merger part. The diversity part is that, to this day, regional Sonoran dishes may have nothing in common with those from the Yucatán; those from Chiapas may be entirely unlike those from Nuevo León.
In an intercultural spirit, we asked essayists from multiple disciplines and with diverse intellectual interests, both curators and scholars, to contribute to this volume. What their essays reveal is paradoxical—a modernism that was international in character and yet rooted in folk or indigenous traditions, transnational but also ethnocentric. Nancy Deffebach, in her discussion of the high-fashion photo by Muray of Frida Kahlo known as "The Magenta Rebozo," points out how the picture alludes to the fine arts (the modeling and coloration of Piero della Francesca, say) even as it becomes, like the Mona Lisa, a mass-reproduced image, as likely to show up on a refrigerator magnet or altar box as anyplace else. In its origin, the photograph is private in what it signifies—the love affair between Muray and Kahlo—yet there is evidence Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera, hung it after her death where, traditionally, the image of the Madonna would hang: above his bed. The secular eros of marital infidelities thus meets the sacred and the devout, with the further irony that the casa azul where Rivera hung the photo is now a tourist site, the Museo Frida Kahlo. Where casa meets museo, where refrigerator magnet meets Quattrocento fresco, is, if nothing else, an intriguing site of cultural merger.
Or consider Covarrubias, one last time. Having begun in his teens to collect indigenous pre-Columbian art, Covarrubias then moved to New York and became famous for his depictions of African American culture, even as he practiced an art form—caricature—with deep roots in his own native Mexican tradition. José E. Limón, focusing on José Limón, the most famous Mexican dancer of the century, discovers how he, the scholar, unwittingly entered the circle of Covarrubias's influence and importance. Covarrubias was married to a dancer but he also, as the head administrator of the Bellas Artes, encouraged the revival of pre-Hispanic dance. It was Covarrubias who urged Limón the dancer to make a tour through Texas in the 1950s and to make stops not just in large urban venues, like Dallas, but in places like Laredo, on the Mexican border. There he was seen by a young, reluctant, and awkwardly bespectacled would-be (at least if his mother had anything to do with it) dance student, also named José Limón. Later, Limón the scholar—to put crudely what he forms as a nuanced argument—came to the conclusion that the United States was indeed a part of greater Mexico.
For me, one of the more fascinating revelations of this book is the modernist rage for what I have called "cultural merger," meaning the blending of high and popular, fine and folk—but also Mexican and more northern American—arts. Also fascinating, though necessarily unaddressed here, is the question: what happened to this merger? The issue grows even more important as the population of the United States becomes ever more Hispanic. For now, though, the term "cultural merger" points to what Miguel Covarrubias, more than any other figure of that high modernist period, exemplified.