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Artist: Miguel Covarrubias, Mexican, 1904 - 1957
Medium:Glass mosaic; Venetian glass technique
Dimensions: Overall: 144 x 720 in. (3 m 65.76 cm x 18 m 28.8 cm)
Credit Line: City of Dallas, Gift of Peter and Waldo Stewart and the Stewart Company, 1992
Object Number: 47.1993
Born in Mexico City, Miguel Covarrubias was an internationally recognized illustrator, writer, and anthropologist. He began his artistic career at age fourteen as a draughtsman of maps and street plans. During his free time, Covarrubias drew caricatures, which helped him gain entrance to Mexico City’s artistic circle. In 1923 he received a travel grant from the Mexican government to move to New York. After the move, his drawings began to appear in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New Yorker.
Like many industries, the magazine industry slowed during the 1930s Depression era. Covarrubias began to focus on studying pre-Columbian and Native American cultures. In 1937 he published Island of Bali and began working on The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, published in 1946.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Covarrubias extended his interests to museum work and dance production.
In Genesis, the Gift of Life, Covarrubias references an Aztec creation myth and incorporates imagery from ancient and modern cultures in Central and North America, including the Aztec, the Hopi, and the Navajo. According to the myth, four principal deities controlled the four elements—water, earth, fire, and air—and each god destroyed the world once using his element. The gods then worked together to create the fifth and current world.
Covarrubias uses the following imagery to represent the four elements:
Water- On the left side of the mosaic the rain cloud with falling drops of rain and whirlpool of swimming fish represent water. The rain clouds appear as sky serpents with open mouths and fangs, derived from images of the Mesoamerican god of rain, often called Tlaloc or Cocijo. The droplets of rain are created with jade beads, symbols for water and life in many pre-Hispanic cultures. The streams of water extending from the whirlpool are also capped with renderings of jade beads and shells, popular motifs in ancient Teotihuacan, near present-day Mexico City.
Sky- The moon, stars, and sun represent the sky. The moon is designed to look like the face of a kachina doll made by the Hopi, a modern native North American people that live in northeastern Arizona. A large, blue swirl shape represents a simplified conch shell that symbolizes Quetzalcoatl (kets-all-kÃƒâ€¦Ã…â€™’-â-tl), the Aztec god of the sky.
Kachina (tihu) depicting Palhik' Mana (Water Drinking Girl), Arizona, Hopi people, probably 1920s, wood, paint, and wool yarn, Dallas Museum of Art, given in memory of Congressman James M. Collins by his family
Earth- Five plants grow along the top of the earth: wheat, maize, citrus, sunflower, and cotton, all of which grow in Mexico and Texas. Underneath is the half-jaguar, half-alligator Aztec god of the earth Tlaltecuhtli (Tlal-te-coot-lee). The rainbow represents a Navajo goddess, believed to be a protector from evil as well as the guardian of crops.
Fire– A hand emerges from the smoke and fire. The hand design is derived from the Native American Hopewell culture. The fire, presented in a style common in ancient Teotihuacan, loosely represents Xuitecuhtli, the Aztec god of fire and volcanic eruptions.
The acorn with a sprout growing out of it references the inspiration and impetus for this work of art. Peter Stewart, the man who asked Covarrubias to create this mural, was walking in his yard one day when his son noticed an acorn on the ground. The son picked up the acorn and showed it to his father. This acorn had a sprout sticking out of it. It was beginning to grow into a tree. Stewart’s son asked him what it was, and he answered that the sprout was the beginning of life growing from the tiny acorn. Mr. Stewart liked this sprouting acorn so much that he mailed it to Covarrubias and asked him to make his mosaic about it.
A mosaic is composed of small, usually colored pieces of inlaid stone, glass, or other material that together create an image or design. Ancient Mesoamericans used mosaics to decorate masks and other luxury goods. These artists used resin and other natural materials, such as copal, pine resin, beeswax, and orchids, as glue.
This mosaic was designed by artist Miguel Covarrubias. He created a preliminary painting of its design. Then, a Mexican mosaic firm cemented small pieces of glass ceramic chips to a concrete wall. This mosaic is outdoors, so the materials must be strong enough to withstand rain, ice, and scorching heat.
Mexican Muralismo, or the Mexican Mural Movement, originated after the Mexican Revolution when young artists began to explore pre-Hispanic, native, and folk culture. The first important Muralismo works were a series of fresco paintings on the walls of the National Preparatory School in 1921. By mid-century, Mexican muralists were also covering architectural interiors and exteriors with mosaics, the synthesis of painting and architecture. The movement recognized the artistic merits and contributions of Mexico’s native population through the incorporation of ancient American symbolism. These murals were tools to elevate the status of a vanquished native population and to regenerate a national cultural identity. By the 1940s and 1950s, pre-Hispanic motifs reminded viewers of a thriving past and symbolized social change for the future.
Covarrubias was part of this Mexican Mural Movement, along with artists such as Jean Charlot, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.
1. Search for representations of each of the four elements (water, air, earth, and fire) in Genesis, the Gift of Life. What imagery can you find?
2. This mural mosaic is sixty-feet long. Measure out sixty feet in your classroom or outside, and think about the size of this mural. How might your experience with the mural change if it was six feet long?
3. Look closely at this mosaic. Think of all the images you see and the stories they represent. Think of ideas for a new title for this work of art.
4. This mural mosaic was created for the exterior of a building in North Dallas. Later, it was moved to the Dallas Museum of Art. Think about the environment surrounding the work. How does the placement of this work of art affect the way we experience it? How would this mural change if it were located inside the Museum or inside your house?
5. Mexican muralists of the 1920s, such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros, used murals as a way to promote a unified Mexican cultural identity. What does the phrase “cultural identity” mean to you? How would you describe your own cultural identity? What elements or traditions are important to your culture? (Remember, “culture” can refer to ethnicity, geography, language, age, gender, interests, hobbies, etc.)
1. What other myths or stories do you know that tell of the world’s creation? Perhaps you have heard of the Christian and Hebrew story of Adam and Eve or of the Iroquois story of Turtle Island. Research creation stories. Are there any connections between those stories and what you see in this mosaic? Design a mosaic representing one creation story.
2. Choose one of the four elements (water, air, earth, and fire) you found in Genesis, the Gift of Life. Write a haiku inspired by the representation of that element in the mural mosaic.
A haiku follows the following pattern:
First line: Five syllables
Second line: Seven syllables
Third line: Five syllables
3. Create a list of all the images you see in this mural mosaic. Choose one of the images to research further. What does this image represent? What other cultures use this symbol? Why do you think Covarrubias incorporated this symbol? Present your findings to your class.
4. Genesis, the Gift of Life is sixty feet long and was created with thousands of tiny ceramic tiles. Using small, cut pieces of construction paper, create your own mosaic on a piece of cardboard. How does employing the mosaic technique affect your design?
Heinzelman, Kurt, ed. The Covarrubias Circle. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.
Williams, Adriana. Covarrubias. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Books for Students:
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1953.
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs from Pre-Columbian Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Harper, Jo. Birth of the Fifth Sun: And Other Mesoamerican Tales. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2008.
Peppas, Lynn. Life in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2004.
Explore significant events in Mexico from 8000 B.C. to the present day.
Learn about an exhibition hosted by the Harry Ransom Center celebrating the centennial of Miguel Covarrubias.
This website, stewarded by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provides scholarly research on Mesoamerica.
This teaching guide offers contextual information about Mexican works of art in the Smithsonian collection.
Learn more about artist Miguel Covarrubias.