In 1930, Covarrubias traveled to the island of Bali for the very first time, sparking a vivid artistic journey that inspired him to create an evocative body of paintings, of which The Beauty Ritual is one of the finest examples. Covarrubias and his wife only remained on the island for a brief, intensive 20 months, making his Balinese paintings especially rare among his entire body of work. His paintings of the island were carefully plotted and ultimately limited in number, given his primary focus on writing and ethnography at the time, making this piece a rare artistic remnant of Covarrubias’ beloved Bali. Although the influence of Western painters on Balinese art was already well-established, with figures such as Willem Hofker, Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet making Bali their life’s work, it was Covarrubias’ artistry that shaped the global imagination of Bali.
In his youth, Covarrubias rapidly established himself among New York City’s cultural elite, holding a post as Vanity Fair’s chief caricaturist, and illustrating widely for books and literary magazines. A multi-talented creator, he was accomplished in diverse disciplines - from caricaturing to classical painting, anthropology, cartography and set design.
Captivated by the promise of a ‘beautiful but little-known island of flowers and modern Eves’1, Bali held infinite creative possibilities for Covarrubias. Over the course of 20 months, he committed to encapsulating its rustic, almost paradisaical, beauty and complexity both on the canvas and through the written word. Indeed, his deep consideration of Balinese culture, religion, its indigenous people and their everyday lives also culminated in his most well-known treatise, Island of Bali. The book entirely transformed the Western conception of this foreign island in an enduring way, and brought it to the fore of public consciousness as a land of high refinement, such that it in fact sparked New York’s ‘Bali craze’ of the 30s. On the other hand, beyond a series of elaborate exhibitions in the 1930s, Covarrubias’ Balinese works still represent hidden gems in his oeuvre and provide a refreshing glimpse into the range and depth of his artistry, just as they provided a mystical window into a tropical paradise for audiences half a world away.
Covarrubias’ art was profoundly informed by his intensive ethnographic study of Bali. The Beauty Ritual was itself developed after his departure from Bali, expanding on experiences captured firsthand on the island. As a result, the work speaks to his role as a deeply diligent eyewitness, standing as an external observer of the scenes and social conduct of Balinese life.
However, Miguel’s perspective of what seemed to be a vast, inaccessible culture was coloured by his empathy as an artist, rather than as a purely detached scientist, entering into Balinese artistic society without presumption or guile. He derived an infinite joy from living, and learning, the lives of the Balinese, staying in the villages of Belaluan and Ubud throughout his artistic tenure in Bali while picking up their languages, observing their religious ceremonies, and debating art. As such, his interpretations of the Balinese landscape were infused with personal symbolism, while sharing the locals’ sensibility for colour and beauty.
This sense of enchantment is fully infused and palpable in this work, as he frames a scene of two Balinese women, one kneeling on the earth as the other carefully tends to and beautifies her hair, removing lice from between the strands. Such a grooming ritual had been practiced for centuries, and was a highly common tradition for Balinese womenfolk who would take turns attending to each other, and this simple custom became a larger symbol of community, kinship and goodwill. Covarrubias no doubt observed this in keen, inquisitive detail. The work deliberately portrays such an every-day, habitual act with an aura of elegance, elevating it to a ‘ritual’ that is both performative as it is intimate.
Even the smallest minutiae of custom and everyday life entranced him, and he conveyed this lightness and novelty particularly through an expressive use of colour, reminiscent of those multicoloured tropical vistas but also borrowing from Covarrubias’ engagement with his caricaturist roots. The women don sarongs of saturated yellow and green, while fabrics of white and blush drape around their heads and bodies. Above all, these spots of colour prove the most arresting on a canvas of clean, bold lines and minimal detailing. His marked ‘economy of line’ gives the work simplicity, yet also reveals a wealth of evocative detail on the lives and interactions of the community around him.
The composition seems entirely suffused with a gentle natural light, illuminating upon the women’s faces and the rattan screen that backgrounds them, while casting subtle shadows on the ground and pooling behind the women’s figures. His art always retained their vivid idiosyncrasies, for example opting instead to depict his subjects in isolation rather than in the traditional Balinese convention of crowded compositions, the perspective fixed exclusively on both women wrapped up in their private, almost maternal, interaction.
The women’s slim forms are marked by restraint and simplicity in terms of their proportion and outlining, in homage to some of the flat, two-dimensional figures that distinguished Balinese art. The influence of Bali’s ‘elongated style’, borrowed from sculpture, is subtly evident here in their thinner, angular limbs and facial features. Strikingly, he still integrates an enduring Mexican sensibility here, illustrating his figures in a primitive style which distinguished the bold Mexican murals of his era. Visually however, their expressions are perfectly placid and absorbed, while retaining a sense of anonymity that ultimately makes them largely representative of the idealized Balinese woman that so captivated the world beyond.
Above all, in The Beauty Ritual, Covarrubias provides an intimate view behind the very public one Balinese women exhibited, yet shows his continual attempts to embody the archetypal ideal of Bali life, and its inherent dignity even among the simplest and organic of settings. Channeling the expressive ethos of Mexican art and his contemporaries such as Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco, Covarrubias strove to create works that embodied the spirit of native cultural life. In the end, his final artistic aim was simply to educate his audiences and provide an insight into the complexity of these far-flung civilizations.
Ultimately, The Beauty Ritual is a testament to Covarrubias’ sincere appreciation for Bali’s unique, abundant cultural identity, all through a deferential, perceptive eye. The work blends characteristic Balinese vistas with his trademark graphic style, to create some of the most enduring portrayals of the island in his time.
1 Franklin Price Knott, ‘Artist Adventures on the Island of Bali’, National Geographic, March 1928, p.326.
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