Miguel Covarrubias: Island of Bali

Miguel Covarrubias
Island of Bali
(1986, KPI Limited, 418 pages)

Miguel Covarrubias (1904-57) – or, to give his entire name, José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud – had a multi-faceted career as an artist, art historian, author, and ethnologist. His sketches and caricatures were for years a mainstay in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and his stage designs graced productions by the likes of Josephine Baker. Many of his books were inspired by his extensive travels. In his later years, researches into the art and culture of his native Mexico and larger Mesoamerica resulted in one of his most famous books, The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent: Indian Art of the Americas (1954).

With his then-girlfriend Rosa, Covarrubias visited Europe, Africa, and much of North and Central America in the 1920s. After their marriage in 1930, Miguel and Rosa took an extended honeymoon on the island of Bali. Fascinated by Balinese culture, they returned to the island in 1933 with the help of Miguel’s Guggenheim Fellowship.

His initial impression of Bali’s big cities was not favorable, but Covarrubias found its smaller villages fascinating. In the company of his friend Walter Spies – the native of Germany who became one of the West’s first experts on Balinese life, music, and the island’s flora and fauna – Covarrubias further explored Bali and, on returning in 1933, started assembling what he described as “all that could be obtained from personal experience by an unscientific artist, of a living culture that is doomed to disappear under the merciless onslaught of modern commercialism and standardization.” Read more