Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) Elefantes en la selva 22 1/4 x 27 1/8 in (56.5 x 68.9 cm) (Painted circa 1932)
Lot 45
Miguel Covarrubias
Elefantes en la selva 22 1/4 x 27 1/8 in (56.5 x 68.9 cm)
US$ 150,000 - 200,000
£ 110,000 - 150,000

Impressionist and Modern Art

14 Nov 2017, 17:00 EST

New York

Lot Details
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) Elefantes en la selva 22 1/4 x 27 1/8 in (56.5 x 68.9 cm) (Painted circa 1932) Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) Elefantes en la selva 22 1/4 x 27 1/8 in (56.5 x 68.9 cm) (Painted circa 1932)
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957)
Elefantes en la selva
signed 'COVARRUBIAS' (lower left)
oil on canvas
22 1/4 x 27 1/8 in (56.5 x 68.9 cm)
Painted circa 1932


  • Adriana Williams has confirmed the authenticity of this work.

    Miguel Covarrubias, born in Mexico City in 1904, was a renowned painter, caricaturist, illustrator, set designer, writer and ethnographer. His range was astonishing. Active from the 1920s to the 1950s, he explored the Harlem renaissance; Balinese, Mexican, and Caribbean cultures; relations between Mexico and the U.S., and further afield, as well as regularly providing caricatures for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. His most significant works, as well as his most famous, are those that relate to his life in Bali, which reflects his own passion for the island. The present work, Elefantes en la selva, depicts a herd of Balinese elephants in a dense bamboo thicket, painted in 1932 following an extended stay in Indonesia. He recorded his experiences in his 1937 book Island of Bali, illustrated with his own paintings, in which he shared his appreciation for Balinese culture.

    Covarrubias left school at the age of 14 to become an apprentice cartographer, simultaneously seeing his caricatures and illustrations accepted for publication in materials published by the Mexican Ministry of Public Education. In 1923 he received a grant from the Mexican Government to travel to New York. There he was taken up by the Mexican poet, critic and New York Times photographer José Juan Tablada, who introduced him to Carl Van Vechten, one of the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance. Through these connections he was introduced to many New York society figures, which led to his position as premier caricaturist and illustrator for Vanity Fair and other magazines such as the New Yorker. During this time, he was also much sought after to design sets for Broadway productions, through which he met his wife, Rosa Rolando, a dancer and theatre choreographer. In 1930, the year they married, Covarrubias won the National Art Directors' Medal for Painting in Color for an advertisement he painted for Steinway & Sons, the piano manufacturers. Using the money from this prize, Covarrubias and his new wife took an extended three-month honeymoon on the freighter Cingalese Prince. Bali was their ultimate destination, but their route took them through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific Ocean, and down the China Sea, stopping at Yokohama, Tokyo, Kobe, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Java, and finally Bali. In Manila, the journalist Corazón Grau reported: 'Caricaturing is not the only interest of this celebrated man. He paints, and just now is working on primitive subjects. By primitive subject he means people who have not been influenced by Western culture' (C. Grau, Covarrubias Doesn't Believe in Teachers, 1929, quoted in A. Williams, Covarrubias, Austin, 1994, p. 61). He took refuge in his sketchpad and in language studies, hoping to be able to speak a little Malya, Bali's official language, by the time they arrived. He had been inspired to travel to Bali by a book of photographs of the remote island paradise by Gregor Krause, a young German doctor who had been stationed on the island. Once there, Covarrubias immersed himself in Balinese culture, befriending the people as well as learning about their everyday lives and rituals. It was this time in Bali that inspired his greatest paintings and drawings.

    While Covarrubias always remained loyal to his Mexican nationality and missed New York City for its excitement and fervor, he formed a deep-rooted connection with Bali. As Adriana Williams has noted: 'There was more that attracted him: Miguel was himself both genial and gregarious, like the Balinese. He was immediately comfortable with and admiring of their simple nobility, good nature, serenity, and gentility. His particular brand of la vacilada had much in common with the sometimes bawdy humor of the islanders, and the slapstick comedy of Balinese theater was reminiscent of the tandas of Mexico - so on a very personal level, he felt a deep response to the place and the people. Miguel threw himself into Balinese life' (A. Williams, op. cit., p. 63). The three months planned travel in Bali quickly turned into nine.

    By 1932, the year Covarrubias painted Elefantes en la selva, Covarrubias was back in New York taking on illustration and caricature jobs, hoping to make enough money to fund his return to Bali. Through his friend George Macy, founder and director of The Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press, he was commissioned to illustrate René Maran's novel Batouala, a passionate portrayal of life in a small African village. Covarrubias was particularly inspired since the novel focused on the uprooting of village life and the destruction of its culture. Not only did he see the importance of this message, he was also stuck by the parallels with his beloved Bali. While his illustrations were supposed to represent the African jungle, his brush kept returning to the jungles of Bali. This is particularly evident in the present painting Elefantes en la selva, with its Asian rather than African elephants standing in a thicket of bamboo.

    Paintings such as the Elefantes en la selva were among Covarrubias' most cherished works since they combined his artistry with a deep compassion for the island. Diego Rivera, a close friend, shared this deep-rooted admiration for indigenous cultures and a desire to keep them from the destructive hand of development which would uproot their long-held traditions. Although never directly identified as a source of inspiration for Covarrubias' Bali paintings, Rivera had images of the culture and people of Tehuantepec painted in 1923 have a similar sentiment. As Adriana Williams points out 'Miguel had surely seen Diego's fresco of Tehuantepec, created for the Ministry of Education in 1923. It is not known when Miguel first visited the isthmus. He told a reporter for the New York Sun in 1938 that he had been there at least twenty times -he had visited Alfonso Caso's excavation at Monte Albán in Oaxaca in 1932...' (A. Williams, op. cit., p. 87). Covarrubias commented: 'I was attracted by its violent contrasts - its arid brush, its jungles that seemed lifted from a Rousseau canvas; the oriental color if its markets ... the majestic bearing and classic elegance of the Tehuantepec women walking to market...' (quoted in A. Williams, op. cit., p. 87). As with Rivera in Mexico, with Covarrubias the Balinese had an influential spokesman as they faced the onslaught of the modern world.
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