Visitors to the De Young Museum in San Francisco can admire a wonderful mural showing the fauna and flora of the Pacific, painted by Mexican artist José Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) for the city’s 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.
The details are exquisitely painted, and the mural is as beautiful as it is educational.
As ever-erudite Jon Haeber writes in his blog post about this mural, painted “at a critical juncture in America’s history”, its artist “was a confidante of Mexican greats Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. As a caricaturist for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, it could easily be assumed that Covarrubias is largely ignored by fine art historians, but he was an anthropologist and geographer as much as he was an artist, which gave him a unique respect among art aficionados… Not only are they an informative lesson in Geography, but they are also a great piece of history – to say nothing about their creator.”
Covarrubias was indeed a geographer and ethnologist. Among other works, he authored Island of Bali (1937); Mexico South (1946); The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent – Indian Art of the Americas; North America: Alaska, Canada, the United States (1954); and Indian Art of Mexico and Central America (1957).
The temporary structures on Treasure Island were subsequently demolished and Covarrubias’ six murals sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. When they were brought back to California in the late 1950s, the series was missing the mural entitled “Art Forms of the Pacific Area”. The titles of the five surviving murals are The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific, Peoples, Economy, Native Dwellings, and Native Means of Transportation.