History of the Foundation

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Miguel Covarrubias in Life Magazine 1939
Miguel Covarrubias in Life Magazine 1939

Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) was a Mexican artist and anthropologist who made his name as a caricaturist, illustrator, and stage designer in New York in the 1920s, and later as an ethnologist and archaeologist in Mexico in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

In 1947 he was commissioned by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (then known as the Viking Fund) to design the Viking Fund Medal. The medal was awarded to honor outstanding intellectual leadership and exceptional service to the discipline of anthropology. It was originally struck in heavy bronze with a three-inch diameter and depicts four dancers, representing the diversity of humankind. The design also served as the logo of the Foundation until 2000, when it was replaced with a simple hand print.

On receipt of the design, Paul Fejos, the founding Director of Research for the Foundation, wrote Covarrubias: “As I wired you yesterday, the medal drawing arrived and everyone is lyrical, with myself leading the chorus. The original drawing will be framed to hang in the place of honor over our library mantel. The enclosed check for $500 is, I know, absurdly small, but you may be assured that our gratitude to you is great.” [1]

Covarrubias was largely self-educated and his anthropological career was rooted in his interest in documenting humanity, particularly in the face of rapid cultural change. In the early years this is evident in his skillful caricatures, which appeared regularly in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and in his depictions of the people of Harlem in Negro Drawings (1927). In the early 1930s he visited Bali on a Guggenheim Fellowship, a trip which was one of two that resulted in his first ethnological book, Island of Bali (1937). Shortly afterwards, he produced six widely disseminated and lavishly illustrated maps of the peoples of the Pacific Basin for the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. From this time on, he focused his anthropological interests almost entirely on the Americas. Years of research resulted in a major work on the peoples of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Mexico South, 1954) as well as in his classic studies of pre-Columbian art (The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent, 1954; and Indian Art of Mexico and Central America, 1957). His interests in pre-Columbian art were kindled by his fascination with the objects emerging from the pre-classic site of Tlatilco in the Valley of Mexico (1500 - 500 BC). The Foundation funded his excavations at this site in the later 1940s. Among his other contributions to Mexican archaeology were the initiation of excavations at the Mayan archaeological site of Palenque in the state of Chiapas, and his analysis of iconography that pointed to the fact that the Olmec culture predated the Classical Era of pre-Columbian archaeology.

 During the later part of his career, he was one of the leading anthropologists and educators in Mexico. He taught at the National School of Anthropology and History in the 1940s and 1950s and in the 1950s was head of the Department of Dance at the National Institute of Fine Arts. In this position he introduced modern dance to Mexico City. He was also responsible for a number of stunning museum displays of ethnographic and archaeological material, laying the foundation for the Mexican tradition of innovative anthropological exhibitions.