By Sorel, Edward | American Heritage, December 1995 | Go to article overview


Sorel, Edward, American Heritage

He may have been the greatest caricaturist of all time - he has imitators to this day? - but his true passion was for a very different discipline

The trouble was, he couldn't say no to anyone. Badgered by magazine editors, book publishers, theater producers, political agitators, and college presidents to contribute his talents to their interests, Miguel Covarrubias said yes to all, forgetting that there were limits to even his energies. In time his careless acquiescences would prove ruinous, but until then he enjoyed enormous success as anthropologist, author, painter, muralist, stage designer, and - most especially - caricaturist.

Covarrubias arrived in New York in 1923, supposedly as an attache to the Mexican consulate, a ruse concocted by his influential father to get his artist son north. The letters of introduction he carried led to a meeting with Carl Van Vechten, tastemaker for the city's cultural elite. The young artist presented his portfolio of caricatures. "I was immediately convinced," Van Vechten would later say, "that I stood in the presence of an amazing talent, if not, indeed, genius." Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, had a similar reaction and promptly commissioned several caricatures for the magazine. By the time they were published in the January 1924 issue, Covarrubias was appearing in the New York World, Tribune, and Herald. He had not yet turned twenty.

The style of caricature that the young Mexican brought north was unlike any that had come before. Not only did he eschew all contour lines - a cartoon tradition dating back to the cave drawings at Lascaux - but he employed shaded geometric shapes in his likenesses. The public, which had always suspected that cubism was something of a joke to begin with, found this deliberately comic variation irresistible. As did Crowninshield. Attracted to the absurd and outrageous, he used Covarrubias liberally both inside and on the covers of Vanity Fair. Perhaps the artist's best-remembered work in that magazine was done during the 1930s for the regular feature "Impossible Interviews," which pitted two incongruous celebrities against each other in a surreal situation.

Not everyone succumbed to the Covarrubias style. D. H. Lawrence found his work "hideous, and hideous without mirth or whimsicality. Blood-hideous. Grim earnest hideousness." But most, including the up-and-coming publisher Alfred A. Knopf, approved. In 1925 Knopf published a collection of Covarrubias's black-and-white caricatures, The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans. To review the book, the New York Herald Tribune chose Ralph Barton, one of the most brilliant caricaturists of the Jazz Age. Also a contributor to Vanity Fair, Barton must have sensed that with the arrival of Covarrubias, his position of primacy in the magazine world was over, but he was nevertheless unstinting in his praise for the young Mexican.

Two years later Knopf published a more controversial book by Covarrubias, Negro Drawings. Some critics were discomfited at seeing racial characteristics caricatured but conceded that the artist's fascination with black culture was sympathetic. The real problem with these drawings was not that they might be perceived as racist but that they weren't very interesting. Compared with his scenes of comic madness, these "serious" drawings were commonplace. The most impressive thing about the collection was that Covarrubias had found the time to do it. Besides appearing in such old standbys as Vanity Fair, Delineator, Theatre Magazine, The Nation, and Screenland, his work was frequently seen in that new magazine for sophisticates The New Yorker. In addition, he was illustrating books and book jackets, creating theater posters for productions in New York and Paris, designing costumes and sets for George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, organizing exhibits of his work, and traveling to North Africa for fresh subjects to sketch and paint.

He even found time to fall in love. …

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