Miguel Covarrubias: Caricatures of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance
This blogpost originally appeared June 8, 2012
Young Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias appeared on the New York art scene in the 1920s, and his skill as a portrait artist and celebrity caricaturist quickly made him a favorite of magazines. His work was so vogue, in fact, that he would be published regularly in Vanity Fair beginning early in his New York experience, as well as the New Yorker, and the most vogue publication of them all—if in name only—Vogue.
Covarrubias’ 1933 caricature of Emily Post (above, right) is a perfect example of his carnivalesque approach to portraiture. Ever the model of propriety, Mrs. Post is portrayed by the artist as a social abomination in the world of good manners. Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, notes in her work Celebrity Caricatures in America, that this particular Emily Post is a work of social horror. Reaves comments, “The doyenne of taste … appeared with bare feet propped on a table and the lurid Police Gazette dangling from one hand. The portrait stripped her of glamour, dignity, and good manners, contrasting provocatively with her public image.”
And yet, it is funny. Visually attributing such crass and impolite behavior to one of such a high social station as Emily Post is the quintessence of irony; moreover, as Reaves indicates, Mrs. Post herself considered it not only humorous, but in a letter to the editor of Vanity Fair, she thanked them for the valuable publicity. Reaves adds that one condition of the caricature of this period separates this from other editorialized renderings; caricature, she notes, “grew directly out of a mass media-generated celebrity industry.”
In New York, the robber barons were still holding court in their ballrooms, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at the Metropolitan Opera, certainly, but uptown had a certain swank as well. In Harlem, a creative movement that knew no bounds was underway, and Miguel Covarrubias seemed to fit right in with all of the energy and passion. In addition to his work creating popular caricatures of famous Americans like Ernest Hemingway, Gloria Swanson, and Calvin Coolidge, Covarrubias took great interest in the Harlem Renaissance taking place in New York during the 1920s. Covarrubias biographer Adriana Williams notes:
It was not an entirely unfamiliar world: Harlem was a first cousin to Mexico City’s Bohemian section, where Miguel had grown up. Both were gathering places for intellectuals, artists, and personalities of the day, and during the period in which Miguel knew them, both were centers for a renaissance of spirit that had to do with cultural rediscovery, with a search for the elemental self. And in both cases, rediscovery was assisted through a renaissance of creative art, in particular folk art. For blacks in the 1920s, folk art communicated as blues, jazz, spiritual song, and dance, and Miguel was there to record it.
Covarrubias (right) mixed with all the personalities of the Harlem Renaissance, and they all knew him and his work. Adriana Williams further notes that among his friends were, “Ethel Waters and Florence Mills, writers James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes… Miguel also became a good friend of W. C. Handy, who was the first black blues anthologist to be published in the United States.”
As a portrait artist/caricaturist of the Harlem Renaissance, Covarrubias was appreciated in some circles, and disdained in others. A visual analysis of his work brings into question his method of rendering some attributes of his subjects, per Wendy Wick Reaves:
With a consuming interest in folk and ethnic traditions that would ultimately lead to a career as an anthropologist, Covarrubias sought to convey the vibrant, distinctive Harlem culture that so fascinated him. His drawings were therefore emphatically racial. Rather than individual portraits, his figures were more often types—the dancing waiter, the gambling man . . . The emphasis on racial features and characteristics in his comic drawings offended some black leaders for their stereotypical exaggerations.
As always with caricature and humor, there is a risk of offending the sitter (subject), a group of people, or, in some cases, almost everyone. As Reaves notes, W. E. B. Du Bois was highly offended with Covarrubias’ portrayal of African Americans, while “James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes . . . admired the vitality of the images and the artist’s admiration for black jazz, blues, and dance.”
However, Covarrubias was not to spend his remaining days executing works in parodic styles. Caricature was his training ground, and even though he continued work in caricature throughout the 1930s, a more serious notion settled upon him as he began to see more of the world. Covarrubias transitioned from caricaturist to curator over the next many years of his life, and while his caricatures will always be treasures, his work as an anthropologist laid the foundation for modern studies of the Balinese—his work on Bali is still considered one of the primary texts of the island’s culture—and for studies of the ancient Olmec and Mexican world.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Reaves, Wendy Wick. Celebrity Caricature in America. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
Williams, Adriana. Covarrubias. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.