NEW YORK, NY.-
On May 22 and 23, Christie's
Latin American sale will offer an exceptional selection of works by modern and contemporary masters hailing from Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and many other regions throughout the Americas. Rich in works from private collections, the two-day auction presents over 300 works by leading Latin American artists such as Fernando Botero, Miguel Covarrubias, Matta, Joaquín Torres-García, Candido Portinari, and Leonora Carrington, among others. The sale is expected to realize upwards of $20 million.
From the esteemed Robert Brady Museum Foundation and formerly in the collection of the cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein, Bather Holding Up Her Kemban (lot 4) by Miguel Covarrubias (estimate: $300,000-500,000) reflects the artists deep love and fascination for the Indonesian island of Bali. He first travelled to Bali in 1930 as a newlywed with his bride and fellow artist Rosa Rolando. A Guggenheim Fellowship provided him with funds for a subsequent trip in 1933, which led to his publication of the well-received book Island of Bali in 1937 as well as a series of drawings and paintings of which this work is a wonderful and rare example. In works like Bather Holding Up Her Kemban, Covarrubias encapsulates his passion and romanticized vision of Balis inhabitants and landscape as a truly earthly paradise of the South Seas.
Miguel Covarrubias's fascination with Bali originated with his first trip to the Indonesian island in 1930. He traveled there from New York with his wife, Rosa Rolando, on their honeymoon. Spending six months on the island, the Mexican artist took extensive notes and made numerous sketches while Rosa Rolando took hundreds of documentary photographs of Bali life and customs. During the long voyage home on an ocean liner, Covarrubias produced gouaches and oil paintings based on his sketches and his recollections.
Covarrubias exhibited thirty-two of these gouaches and oil paintings on Balinese themes at the Valentine Gallery in New York in an exhibition that opened on January 18, 1932. This series and exhibition represent a significant turning point in the artist's career. Celebrated as a highly-regarded caricaturist during the 1920s in New York City--where he had moved in 1923 at the young age of nineteen--Covarrubias was known for his humorous and biting satires of the city's social and political elite as well as for his so-called "negro drawings" and observations of Harlem social life. With the support of leading New Yorkers Frank Crowninshield and Carl Van Vechten, Covarrubias had become a contributor to magazines for the social set such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New Yorker. In addition to its shift in thematic focus, the 1932 Valentine exhibition represents a turn away from illustration and a move toward painting, on which he would increasingly focus his energies. His interest in Bali would also serve as the starting point for the production of ethnographic, pictorial travelogues.
A Guggenheim Fellowship provided him with some of the funds to return to Bali in 1933 in order to continue his investigations, specifically for a book manuscript, which Alfred A. Knopf would eventually publish as Island of Bali in 1937. Covarrubias remained on the island for a year. During his voyage home to New York, where he arrived in December 1934, he again completed several more paintings on Balinese themes. He also made significant progress on the book manuscript, which he had been planning since the first trip. Life magazine and Vanity Fair reported on Covarrubias's work on Bali, which inspired a "Balinese vogue" among fashionable New Yorkers as epitomized by the window displays at the Fifth Avenue department store, Franklin Simon, which included fabric designs with Bali prints by the artist. Even before Island of Bali's appearance in mid-November 1937, Knopf ordered a second printing to satisfy demand.
Bather Holding Up Her Kemban depicts themes at the heart of Island of Bali- bathing and the romanticized depiction of Bali's inhabitants and its landscape. In his exegesis on the customs of everyday life, Covarrubias expounds on the centrality of bathing in Balinese culture and the etiquette followed by women to avoid nudity in public baths. The gouache, however, isolates a female bather and depicts her fully in the nude, making clear that his paintings were divorced from the pseudo-anthropological observations he put forth in his chronicles. Despite these differences, Covarrubias idealized Bali as a pristine and enchanted land that embodied a vision of social harmony and beauty. The gouache encapsulates the ways in which Covarrubias was drawn to the exoticism of the "South Sea Island paradise." As such, like the European traveler artists who came to Latin America in the nineteenth century, Covarrubias reinvented his own form of a pictorial costumbrismo for the modern age.
Dr. Anna Indych-López, Associate Professor of Art History, The City College of New York and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York
1) Adriana Williams, Covarrubias (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 69.
2) Williams, Covarrubias, 80 and 82.
3) Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973; originally published in 1937), 116-118.
4) Terence Grieder, "The Divided World of Miguel Covarrubias," Americas (Washington D.C.) vol 23 , no. 5, (May 1971): 24, cited in Williams, 84.