Private Collection, New York
Sotheby's, Singapore, October 22, 2006, Lot 18
Private Collection, Singapore
Portrait of Mao Tse-tung was one of the highlights at the National Homage to Miguel Covarrubias, a retrospective exhibition in honour of the artist's centenary birth that was held in Mexico from 26 November 2004 to 27 February 2005. The exhibit was part of the joined efforts between the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, through the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, and the Museo Soumaya. It was a project of such great magnitude that the collection was distributed among three different venues: the Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, the Museo Frida Kahlo and the Museo Soumaya. Its goal was to present a complete and integral vision of the artist and his work, including those of his explorations of foreign lands, culture and people. The Portrait of Mao Tse-tung is indeed a rarity – not only because it is an important component of Covarrubias' few Chinese-themed oeuvres, but also because it pays homage to one of the most legendary figures in the 20th century.
Covarrubias' depiction of Chairman Mao is ahead of its time. Andy Warhol only started featuring Mao in his work in 1973, well after the present work was completed. The portrait focused on Mao's visage, which dominates the entire canvas – strong, dignified, iconic and seemingly larger than life – while his Red Army occupies the general background. Numerous crimson flags are hoisted high in the sky by what appears to be a legion of Mao's loyal supporters, as if they are flames burning with passion, idealism and patriotism. Covarrubias depicted Mao the way he saw the Chairman, amidst China's escalating national income as well as the Communist Party's growing members. His portrayal embodies the greatness and valour of a figure that Covarrubias considered to be a patriotic hero who was responsible for China's growth and development.
During the course of his life Covarrubias collaborated with renowned authors on a few projects on China. He illustrated 22 black and white drawings for China expert Marc Chadourne's Chine, published in 1931, and provided 32 coloured illustrations for the English version of the 14th century Chinese epic Shui Hu Chuan, which was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Pearl S. Buck and was published as All Men Are Brothers in 1948. His friendships with Chadourne and Lin Yu Tang, renowned author, historian and philosopher, heightened his enthrallment with all aspects of China. Dr. Eli Gortari, at the time still a young Mexican philosopher and professor, recalled that Covarrubias "was active in organizations that promote East-West cultural relations. He wanted the Mexicans to learn about China's theatre, opera, painting, literature, and music. Above all he wanted to share his prodigious knowledge and humanism along with everything he understood about China." (Adriana Williams, Covarrubias, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX: 1994, p. 67).
Eventually Covarrubias' growing interest in China manifested in the Society of Friends of Popular China, "which Miguel chaired during its first year in 1953. By June of 1954, he had published the society's first bulletin, outlining its bylaws and statutes. Its goals were "to promote friendship between China and Mexico" through cultural exchange in the arts and sciences and "to force the recognition of Popular China by the Mexican Government."(Ibid).
Under Mao's leadership as Chairman of the People's Republic of China, the country made rapid progress. Covarrubias' own philosophy leaned towards Communism and it is likely that witnessing China's growth further ignited his own aspirations for a thriving and developed Mexico. Throughout the years he maintained frequent contact with China and in an interview with author Adriana Williams, his niece, María Elena, reminisced about receiving large deliveries of printed materials, magazines and books from China on behalf of Covarrubias on more than one occasion.(Ibid, p. 212)
Covarrubias' dexterity and perceptiveness in capturing the essence of his subject's characteristics have always been inimitable. In Portrait of Mao Tse-tung, which was executed in the 1950s, he reveals his vision of Mao. It is uncannily similar in colour and composition to how he would be depicted in later Chinese propaganda posters after the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), in which his face "had to be painted hong, guang, liang (red, bright, and shining); no grey was allowed for shading, and the use of black was interpreted as an indication that the artist harboured counter-revolutionary intentions. His face was painted usually in reddish and other warm tones, and in such a way that it appeared smooth and seemed to radiate as the primary source of light in a composition.
The lines and brush strokes that form the Chairman's features are details that are distinctively Covarrubias – from the intensity of the eyes to the generous, full lips that are reminiscent of his Balinese subjects – yet they also contain unique marks that are synonymous with Mao: the mole, the parting and sweep of his hair, the short, straight eyebrows and the deep lines around his bright eyes, from which he seems to envision the world with bold frankness. As a ray of light falls softly upon the Chairman's forehead and cheekbones, he appears to turn his gaze upwards, into the light – as if taking a glimpse at a bright future China.
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