Covarrubias in Bali
ADRIANA WILLIAMS & YU-CHEE CHONG
Covarrubias in Bali
Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2005. 144 pp. ISBN 9814155225, US$50
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen, Royal Holloway, University of London
Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias and his dancer wife Rose went to Bali on their honeymoon in 1930 and were so entranced by the island’s lively arts and spirituality that they returned with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation in 1933 for Miguel to research a book about ‘the Balinese’ as a ‘developed race of artist’ (p. 29). This book, Island of Bali, became an instant classic after publication in 1937. Covarrubias’ book has been widely used and criticized by Baliologists, and remains one of the most accessible works on the island, reprinted many times. What have remained unexamined are the many art works created by Covarrubias between 1930 and 1936 on Balinese themes. This lovingly-assembled volume brings together all Covarrubias’ Balinese paintings and lithographs, and a generous selection of his sketches and Rose’s photographs. Some of these have been displayed previously in exhibitions in New York and Mexico City, published in Vanity Fair or included in catalogues or in Island of Bali, but many receive public attention for the first time. The book is rounded out by a finely detailed biographical essay on Covarrubias’ involvement with Bali by Covarrubias’ biographer Adriana Williams and a short essay on Covarrubias’ art work by London-based fine art dealer Yu-Chee Chong.
Covarrubias’ art focuses on traditional Bali. There are no hints of the supernatural; the presence of Dutch colonialism, tourists or other foreigners goes unmarked. Eyes are mostly blank and faces are not finely detailed, though mammary glands are highlighted, unsurprisingly. Bodies are sometimes elongated and distorted in a caricature-like manner, but everyday bodily postures and dance positions are legible. Colours are warm and Mexican. Yu-Cheen Chong takes up in her essay the question whether Covarrubias influenced Balinese art. The answer she comes with is negative: the elongated proportions of Balinese sculpture have only an accidental similarity to Covarrubias’ lanky figures. Covarrubias’ work was intended for Western markets, and not available to Balinese artists. Though Covarrubias offered some art lessons to Balinese artists at Walter Spies’ encouragement, this was limited to technical use of tools, and did not extend to stylistic modeling.
Covarrubias was in the position to offer a more politically engaged rendering of ‘the Balinese’ in his artwork and writing. He had a Marxist background, with links to Diego Rivera and other Mexican artist-activists. Williams, in her introductory essay, is at pains to point out the many commonalities between traditional Balinese culture and the rites, mores and traditional world view that Covarrubias imbibed as a child in Mexico – commonalities which could have resulted in the de-exoticisation of Bali. Instead, Covarrubias offers the locus classicus of Bali-as-paradise in his book, and unchallenging art works on canvas and paper. This perhaps is testament to the strength of ideology. Covarrubias had a sensitive eye for ethnographic detail and painted with flair, and his artwork is highly desired by collectors worldwide, but he helped construct rather than dispute the stereotypes haunting Bali to the present.