Tourist traps the world over are littered with self-proclaimed caricaturists, but these shoddy scribblers that churn out cutesy watercolors for a handful of cash are nothing compared to the classics. Over time, the term caricaturist has come to signify an artist that is inferior, one that creates works more for shallow entertainment than for true expression. Caricaturists of the past did paint in a style that largely endures today in the rapid-fire works that hang throughout touristy locales, but back then it was the message that the artist was trying to convey through this aesthetic that really mattered. As Marshall McLuhan would say, the medium has now become the message, and that’s a shame, because it has trivialized the works of great artists like Miguel Covarrubias, who were really saying something through their caricatures.
It’s said that Pablo Picasso studied his whole life to learn how to paint like a child, Miguel Covarrubias had the opposite arc, as a youth his work already showed a mastery well beyond his years. By 1924 at the ripe age of 19, Covarrubias had already become a well-known caricaturist in his native Mexico when he received a government grant to travel to New York where he could continue his work. His English might have been poor, but his skill with a brush was undeniable and thanks to a few of his fellow Mexican artists, Covarrubias was soon working as a caricaturist for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
Here Covarrubias was, a self-taught, fresh faced artist in an unknown country, and yet his work filled the pages of America’s elite publications throughout the twenties and thirties. Covarrubias’ greatest skill was not his hand, but his eye. From his early days in the city, Covarrubias was introduced to New York society life and through that he was able to observe the cultural characters that surrounded him. His works, most famously his Vanity Fair caricatures, often depicted these curious juxtapositions that paired two figures in an unexpected manner. This series was called “Impossible Interviews” and through exaggerated proportions and unambiguous expressions he presented his subjects as he saw them. This is the purpose of caricature in it’s purest form, to present people, primarily recognizable people, in a way that relays who they truly are. In this way, a caricature is, or at least was at that time, more genuine than a photograph even. Covarrubias eventually returned back to Mexico where he continued to paint and illustrate until he passed away in 1957, but his work for Vanity Fair remains the height of American caricature. These painting were certainly over the top, and unnaturally ornate, but there’s a truth to them that we almost never see in caricature anymore.