Collection Spotlight: Mexican Street Scene, Miguel Covarrubias

Artist: Miguel Covarrubias (Mexican, 1904–1957)
Title: Mexican Street Scene
Date: ca. 1940
Medium: Lithograph on paper
Dimensions: 12.7 x 10 in
Credit line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Anthony and Carolyn Donato, 1997.16

Artist Miguel Covarrubias, who worked also as a writer, curator, and anthropologist, was born and raised in Mexico City. He first moved to New York City in the 1920s, and there he worked as a caricaturist and stage designer. In the following decades, he moved between urban cosmopolitan circles, excavated ancient sites in the Americas, and traveled to document the customs and habits of people in Bali and southeast Mexico. Thanks to research by Northwestern students Janitza Luna and Joyce Wang, we began to understand the lithograph Mexican Street Scene (ca. 1940) in light of the artist’s influential career and within the broader context of attempts to visualize a unified Mexican identity for international audiences.

In the print, the composition is dominated by the central figure of a woman draped in a dark shawl and with a basket. Her solid, three-dimensional form and profile view lends the figure gravitas. To her right stands a man who wears loose clothing, sandals, and a wide-brimmed hat that partially obscures his face. While the figures are generalized – and the setting reveals little about specific location – the traditional dress suggests that Covarrubias sought to depict rural subjects. Mexican Street Scene is likely based on a painting, and different editions of the print can be found in other museum collections. This leads us to believe that the artist considered the composition popular enough to be made available for wider distribution.

Covarrubias made Mexican Street Scene around the same time that he co-curated the important exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art (1940) at the Museum of Modern Art. Presenting contemporary art, ancient objects, and crafts by Indigenous people, the sweeping survey encouraged visitors to see a national style in the continuity of forms in works produced across time periods and class. Covarrubias, who curated the section on modern art, included such artists as Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera, for whom traditional folk art had been so inspiring. The presentation aligned with the push for a unified national identity in the Mexican Revolution (1910), when the upper classes adopted the aesthetics of rural and Indigenous culture to distinguish themselves from the European tastes of previous regimes.

The exhibition also reflected the reception of Mexican culture in the United States. One section, “Indian Art for Modern Living,” curated by Covarrubias’s friend and colleague René d’Harnoncourt, presented popular art such as pottery and textiles in a manner reminiscent of mid-century displays of Mexican crafts in department stores. The objects had the aura of authenticity because they were handmade, seemingly produced with techniques that predated industrialization. But they were also presented as commodities that lacked a connection to the lives and diverse histories of their makers. 

Research by Luna and Wang helped us understand the social and historical contexts of Mexican Street Scene – on the surface, a seemingly simple nostalgic print. We began to understand the generalized title and depiction of rural figures as representative of the pride of an artist determined to shine a light on the important contributions of Mexican artists to the international modernist movement. At the same time, the print can be understood within the practice of appropriating folk and indigenous culture to present a more unified Mexican (and often flattened) identity.

–Contributed by Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate, with research from Janitza Luna (Weinberg ’24) and Joyce Wang (Weinberg ’24)

Bibliography / Resources

  • Kastner, Carolyn, ed., with essays by Carolyn Kastner, Alicia Inez Guzmán, Khristaan D. Villela, and Janet Catherine Berlo, Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 2014.
  • López, Rick Anthony. Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Luna, Janitza and Joyce Wang. “Modernist Displays of Mestizo Identity in Covarrubias’ Mexican Street Scene.” Undergraduate Research Expo Presentation, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, May 26–May 27, 2021.
  • Montgomery, Harper. “From Aesthetics to Work: Displaying Indian Labor as Modernist Form in Mexico City and New York.” Modernism/modernity 21, no. 5 (January 2014): 231–51.
  • Museum of Modern Art and Instituto de Antropología e Historia de México. Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the Mexican Government, 1940.
  • Sotheby’s. Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale: Auction in New York, 15 May 2019. New York: Sotheby’s, 2019. 

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