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: https://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/frida-kahlo-and-arte-popular
A descriptive op-ed on the MFA exhibit, featured in the Harvard Crimson: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2019/3/5/mfa-frida-kahlo-exhibit/
A collection of Nickolas Murray’s photographs of Kahlo, Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, and others, up for sale by Sotheby’s: https://news.artnet.com/market/frida-kahlo-photographs-1506793