MEXICO CITY - At the entrance to Exhibit Hall 5 of the new world-ranking Museo Soumaya here, self-portraits of some legendary artists of the first half of the 20th century are on exhibit.
Among them are Dr. Atl, Angel Zarraga, German Cueto, Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma, Raul Anguanoy, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
But the first one a visitor sees upon entering is that of someone that should be familiar to United States critics but probably is not: that of Miguel Covarrubias.
Covarrubias probably did more, as an artist and illustrator, than anyone of his period to change the imagery of African Americans. He did so during the Jazz Age through his drawings and caricatures that appeared in numerous influential magazines.
Born in 1904 in Mexico City, Covarrubias ended his prep school studies at age 14 to dedicate himself to drawing and publishing caricatures. He also worked as a book illustrator, producing a primary schools drawing manual for the Secretaria of Public Education. He also did cartography at the Secretariat of Communications during his early career.
Still a teenager, in 1923 Covarrubias left for New York where he worked, among other publications, for Fortune, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, as well as several publishing houses. Almost immediately, he developed an interest in the Harlem Renaissance and the lives of black Americans. He illustrated daily life and dance halls, and did a book, Negro Drawings, in1929.
He was responsible for diffusing a changed imagery through his illustration of the sophisticated black Jazz Age musicians and created a drawing style that contributed to modern art, cubismo, futurism and art deco, in particular.
In 1930, Covarrubias married Broadway dancer Rosa Rolando. The couple became lifelong artistic and intellectual partners. They traveled to Cuba, China, Bali, the Philippines, throughout Europe and to North Africa.
The Guggenheim Foundation recognized his work in 1937. His book, "The Island of Bali,'' received critical acclaim. Learning and interpreting dance in Bali was also part of the Covarrubias' study.
In the 1930s, Miguel Covarrubias painted several mural projects in Mexico. The autodidact, a self-taught scholar, gave classes in ethnography at the National School of Anthropology. And his study of dance led him to become director of the School of Dance of the National Fine Arts Institute.
Covarrubias dedicated himself to anthropological research and had a special interest in Olmec culture. In 1941, Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias visited Cerro de las Mesas, Veracruz, to study pre-Columbian Olmec monuments and artifacts. He noted that all early Mexican cultures displayed certain Olmec artistic cultural traits, yet the Olmecs didn't seem to borrow any elements or motifs from other cultures.
Covarrubias's artistic analysis contradicted what scholars had been saying, but he supported Matthew Stirling's theory that the Olmec culture preceded all other Mexican cultures. For that reason, along with his writings and illustrations on Native American art and history, Covarrubias holds a prominent place among scholars of the original Americans.
He was one of the most prolific Mexican artists and investigators of Mexican cultural history. Caricaturist, sketcher, illustrator, theater designer, painter, anthropologist and ethnologist, Miguel Covarrubias was an empiricist and autodidact who used his media to take the public up close to others they might not get close enough to understand -- whether in faraway Bali or across town in Manhattan.
Illustrators like that present us with a self-portrait of ourselves.
Miguel Covarrubias died from complications resulting from diabetes in Mexico City in February, 1957.
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at email@example.com