Miguel Covarrubias in Bali


Miguel Covarrubias in Bali
I Manhattan,and his stunninglybeautifulwife were set
I downbya Dutch packetsteameronthe northerncoast
I of Bali. Neitler artist nor island would Fver be the
I same. In two visits to Bali, amounting to just 20
months' residency,Miguel Covamrbias created an impressivebody of drawings and paintings of the life ofthe island,
and carried out the research for a dense 400-page book
about its culture. Amazir'{y, lskmd. of Bali., published by
Alfred A. IGopf in l93l is still the indispensablework on
the islandt complex rituals and philosophy.
Despite the endwing renown of Coramrbias' book,
the art he made in Bali hasbeen neglected"rarely exhibited
and mosdy urrpublished. Couarrubias in Bali, a gorgeous
new book by Adriana Williams, the artist'sbiographer,and
Yu-Chee Chong now revealsthe impressive mastety and
range-ard surprisingquantiry-of Cwamrbias'work in Bali.
A new book rediscoversMiguel Covarrubias'
delightful depictionsof 1930sBali
By the time he arrived on
ihe island, several accomplished
foreign artists had already been
there, drawn by tlle romantic lure
of a tropical paradise &ee of the
stressesand neurosesof what was
coming to be lanown as "modern
civilizationj' Wl.rile other artists,
inclufing the German painter
Walter Spies and t]Ie Dutchmar
Rudolf Bonnet, were busily creating the my'th of the Island of the
Gods, concentuatingon tJIe exotic
beauty of its bare-breasted maidens and graceful adolescentboys,
Covamrbias delved deeper, following his anthropological researchinto the soul of Bali.
Covamrbias has alwals been underestimated as an
artist. Unlike his celebrated compatriots Diego Rivem and
David Siqueiros, who painted public murals on a heroic
scale,Covamrbias made his name in the humble medium
of t}te caricature, He arrived in New York at age 18 (after
dropping out of high schoolwhen he crackeda teacher's
skull in a fit of anger), and found fame and a good living almost immediately with his witty, irreverent ink portraits for
glossymagazinessuch as the New forkzr and,Uani,tAFai,r
By 1930,when he married RosemondeCowan,a popular
Broadway dancer and choreographer,he was a firture in
Manlattant smart set.
Yet Covarrubias,true to his Mexican roots, was always
ambivalent about the glittering world of caf6 society, For
tleir honeymoon, he and his wife Rose sailed to BaIi, in
searchofa more contemplative life. When they arrived, tle
Covarrubiaseswere befriended by Walter Spies,who lived
at the royal court of [Jbud, in t]re interior ofthe island. "The
months flew past while we roamed around the island with
Spies;'wrote Covarrubias."We watched stnnge ceremonies, enjoyed the music, listened to fantastic tales,
camped in the wild Darts of western Bali or at the Sanur
coral reef." And, as
we no\i/ know, he
was furiously painting and sketching all
the while.
newly revealedwork
in Bali standsamong
the finest of his career: his deceptively
polished, Art Decoinspired compositions and intensely
colorful palette were
a flexible medium
for the artist to
explore every aspect
of life on the island.
His podraits of
Balinese women
capture their frank
sensuality without
the overlay of leering orientalism
frequendyfoundin the work of otl- X
The Mexican
er foreign artists in the tropics-per- !
painter,top left,
haps because of the similadties ,l
between village life in Mexico and'
Bali. The paintings of the islandt !
legendary dance performancesarei
fishermens'waysto carefully observedyet imbued with a ;
ils legendarydance full measureof mystical atmosphere. q
Bali welcomed its early foreign !
visitors with splendid hospitality, inviting them to imbibe !
deeply and freely of its unique civilization.Yet itt ques- :
tionable how much the island ultimately got out of the i
bargain.asidefrom the mixed blessingofa billion-dollar- I
plus tourism industry. Covarrubiaswas one early guest I
who madea major contdbution. He wasnot a greatartist, .1
but he was a brilliant obsewer:for generations,everyone!
with a sedousinterest in Bali has been grateful for his g
book about its culture. Now everyone interested in !
Covarrubiasis indebted to Williams and Chong for this :
fascinating.beautiful study of the artist's staysin Bali. i
which revealshow much more he accomplishedwhile he i