Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Mexican in Bali: Covarrubias book sheds new lights [sic.] on the artist


Here are some snippets, not paticularly elegantly snipped, from Bruce Carpenter's Jakarta Post article about a new book on the friend of Frida Kahlo's bonk, Miguel Covarrubias (more about western artists in Bali about here in the annals of my blog; someone else's blog entry about Cavarrubias here and a lovely website associated with an exhibition of his work is here (sorry for stealing the photo Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin). Such a pity I haven't read the book because I'm sure the sentiment that "After all these years, Island of Bali remains the greatest book written about the island" is hyperbolic and one of those things that just keeps getting said while fewer and fewer people actually read the thing, and I'd love to be able to say that with authority.
"Friend and contemporary of the older, legendary artist Diego Riviera and other Mexico City artists, Miguel moved to New York in 1924 at the tender age of 19.

There he would establish himself as one of the leading caricaturists of his generation, creating numerous memorable covers, articles and illustrations for books and periodicals; including the popular magazine Vanity Fair.

In 1930, the successful artist would leave New York with his beautiful new wife Rosemonde Cowan, a Broadway choreographer and dancer, on an around-the-world honeymoon cruise.

It was their intention to spend several months on an exotic island in the Netherlands East Indies acclaimed by many as the "new" paradise on earth -- Bali.

The island at the time was also home to a colorful array of expatriate artists, scholars, eccentrics and hopeless idealists, including the handsome German musician and surrealist painter Walter Spies.

Spies, who had fled the jealous arms of the German film director Fritz Murnau, had set up court in Ubud where he entertained an endless procession of international guests, who arrived regularly on luxury cruise ships.

Guide and friend to Miguel and Rose, Spies introduced them to the highlights of the still pristine island and its peoples during a period that is often called Bali's Golden Age.

Smitten by the unique culture and lively company, Miguel was inspired to launch himself on a new career as an artist-scholar. After returning again he would publish in 1937 the classic book, Island of Bali, illustrated with his original work.

It was an immediate runaway best seller that brought widespread fame to the author and irrevocably lodged the island forever in the international psyche as the ultimate tropical paradise.

Richly illustrated, Covarrubias in Bali is complemented by two sets of texts. The first, written by Adrianna Williams, author of a 1991 biography of Covarrubias, gives an intimate glimpse of the wondrous experiences of the young artist and his new wife and their interaction with the Balinese and expatriate communities before the outbreak of World War II.

Her story not only covers their time in Bali but also the return to New York where a "Bali Craze" would break out after the success of the Island of Bali.

The second essay, by the Malaysian art dealer, Yu-Chee Chong, discusses the impact of Bali on the artist's work and vice versa. The artwork includes not only illustrations from his books and articles but also many lesser known works such as the sensuous oil painting Bather Holding Up Her Kamben, described by Yu-Chee as one of his masterpieces.

Even now, and in spite of earlier and countless later books, the Island of Bali, stands out as a monumental achievement considered by many the best book ever written on the island. I believe that Miguel's success was largely due to his Mexican roots, which allowed him to intuitively grasp Balinese art and culture, spiritually and emotionally.

While nominally Christian, Mexican culture still owes much to its animist, tribal past. This sense is the secret ingredient missing in so many other books and studies.

Ironically, for many years after his death, the art of Covarrubias remained in the shadows of this book. This changed in the 1980s when two exhibitions, one in the Smithsonian, and a second major retrospective in the Cultural Center of Contemporary Art in Mexico City stimulated new interest and established his legacy as more than being a mere illustrator or caricaturist.

Interestingly enough, one of his most avid early collectors was the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno. In spite of this, the booming Indonesian art market only really began paying attention to him five years ago when several major works appeared in the auctions."

3 Comments:

Blogger bruce said...

It is, in fact, a very intriguing and revealing book, in spite of your dismissive comments. I'd suggest reading it first.

12:19 am  
Blogger Bindii said...

I'll be on the look out for this book tho it took me a moment to realize that a "Mexican" was not from Victoria here (I did notice the Melbourne salaryman)
Subject post title drew my attention - the words to Redgum's "I've been to Bali too" immediately sprung to mind and now I cant shake the tune

10:47 pm  
Blogger friskodude said...

It isn't hyperbole. Island of Bali is one of the finest books ever written about the island.

9:31 am  

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