Friday, June 28, 2019

Covarrubias, Kahlo, and Popular Pride

Left: Cristina Kahlo, Miguel Covarrubias, Frida Kahlo, and Rosa Covarrubias; Right: Covarrubias and Nickolas Murray

On June 19th, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts concluded its exhibit “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular”, a celebration-via-contextualization of Kahlo’s work. Mexican decorative art, ceramics, textiles, and other artisan materials surrounded Kahlo’s pieces, emphasizing the interplay between the two. Arte popular grew out of the Mexican Revolution, embodying the authentic Mexican self that thrived in modern society but never lost sight of heritage and tradition. In turn, Kahlo took on the same themes in her artwork: magical realism, vibrancy, and fluidity between the animate and inanimate and the living and the dead. Kahlo brought “popular” art to its dual sense, taking inspiration from the folk art of the people and giving it a global voice.

Kahlo was not the only artist of her period to adopt arte popular as the substance of a greater platform. Miguel Covarrubias, a close friend of Kahlo among her circle in Mexico City. Their relationship was captured by Nickolas Murray, Kahlo’s longtime lover. Covarrubias featured prominently as a caricaturist and illustrator, rising through a series of New York connections to become a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Like Kahlo, Covarrubias drew stylistic inspiration from the local craftspeople he grew up with. The sweeping lines and pure colors in his work mirrors the sensuosity and fantasy of arte popular, translated to suit, and subvert, the imagery of societal powers of race and class.

For Covarrubias, the process of inspiration and execution was a study in ethnography. In New York, through his friends Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W. C. Handy (for whom he also illustrated books), Covarrubias experienced the Harlem Renaissance, which he captured in caricatures and drawings. Those that depicted jazz clubs were printed in Vanity Fair, while others formed the basis of his book, Negro Drawings. When Covarrubias traveled to San Francisco to create a mural for the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, he painted six murals featuring grandiose illustrated maps, respectively titled The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific, Peoples, Art and Culture, Economy, Native Dwellings, and Native Means of Transportation. His honeymoon to Bali, paired with a later return trip as a Guggenheim Fellow, resulted in the book, Island of Bali, in which Covarrubias expounded on the local culture and customs through his writing and illustrations, as well as the inclusion of his wife Rosa Rolanda’s photographs. These honest encapsulations of foreign cultures preceded Covarrubias’ perhaps most-loved work, Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Throughout the book, Covarrubias balances oral history, first hand analysis, biography, and documented history, peppering the text with diagrams and illustrations, as well as colored plates showing the world of the Isthmus through his characteristic style. In our copy, Covarrubias added an additional drawing before the title page, in which with graceful simplicity he exemplifies the local women: their manner of dress, their hairstyles, their labors, and even their attitudes. This work brings to fruition all of Covarrubias’ previous labors, honoring the folk art so influential to him and Kahlo by giving it tangible, international face born out of itself. The likes of Kahlo and Covarrubias brought Mexican arte popular into the greater public purview, a democratization of art that never lost sight of its roots.

References and Links:

The MFA’s summary of the Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular:

A descriptive op-ed on the MFA exhibit, featured in the Harvard Crimson:

A collection of Nickolas Murray’s photographs of Kahlo, Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, and others, up for sale by Sotheby’s:

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Some Safe Harbor: WWII Logbooks from the South Pacific

From 1941 to 1943, Lorain Roswell Snyder, Seaman First Class, traveled throughout the Pacific, winding his way north from the Galapagos Islands, towards the South Pacific, and up to Alaska aboard the U.S.S. Richmond (CL-9). In those years, Snyder, nicknamed “Doc”, recorded not only his activities and the adventures the Richmond encountered, but also cataloged the duties accorded to his role as a gunner’s mate, drew equipment, maps, tattoos, and flags in astonishing detail, and offered his own insights into wartime events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor (“War!!!/Oh my! Well here's what we've been waiting for ... Arizona and Oklahoma got it bad!”). He encapsulated this life at sea, with all the specifics of its vessels and the mercuriality of its personalities and its bureaucracy, in four log books, presented here.

All commissioned naval vessels maintain log books, called deck logs, handwritten or typed by the officers on board. These are held as permanent records by the Navy, and eventually by the National Archives. The Archives’ collection spans the Revolutionary War, their earliest item being a photostatic copy of the log for the Continental Schooner WASP, through Vietnam. A certain number, listed by ship name, have been digitized, including the logs for the Richmond. Snyder’s name does not appear in the logs because he was not a commissioned officer, but the coordinates match - both Snyder’s and the official logs place the Richmond in the South Pacific in May 1942, for example, as well as being off the coast of Siberia for the Battle of the Komandorski Islands a year later.

But the deck logs make no mention of the life of an enlisted man, or anyone else for that matter, other than the arrivals and departures of various seamen, and the occasional relegation of an insolent sailor to the brig. Snyder’s accounts, then, provide a unique and eclectic view, a log crafted for the sake of self-expression, accountability, and education. Two logs document Snyder’s on-board studies to become a gunner’s mate third-class and second-class. His assignments ranged from the proper use and storage of ammunition, the parts of various weapons (Snyder’s artistic acumen is on display in his depictions of a .45 caliber automatic pistol, a gun mount, a flare gun, and other equipment), storm warning signals, and mathematical equations. At the rear of these coursebooks, which function nearly as manuals, Snyder, with characteristic precision, indexed morse code, semaphore, alphabetical and numerical flags, pipe markings, and national symbols.

The technical knowledge of these logs imbues the other two with a backbone of seriousness, even as Snyder rolls his eyes at some men who “just can’t be satisfied with enough” while he is “just taking life easy”. These books, which function as daily diaries, were addressed at the outset to Snyder’s parents, a statement only preceded by the ship’s seal and an account of its destinations from 1939 to 1942. Albeit unintentional, these two introductory elements highlight the personality and enthusiasm of Snyder’s accounts, and of Snyder himself. He expressed wonder at aerial warfare, glib boredom or approval of daily duties, fear at the scattered battles that the U.S.S. Richmond comes across, and joy at familiar sights. Outside of these regular reports, Snyder also drew a map of the Pacific, tracking the Richmond’s course alongside major altercations between the Japanese and the Allies, and penned a humorous poem entitled “A Torrid Tale of the Tropics” about a hapless lover on Waikiki.

At the heart of Snyder’s logbooks lies a love of storytelling and a weather eye toward a safe port. Snyder’s final proclamation - “Home!” - promises pride and relief, satisfaction and adventure.