Happy Birthday Rosa Rolanda (1895-1970)

Photo by Man Ray (1928)

Rosemonde Cowan [Rosa Rolanda] was born on September 6, 1895 in the Los Angeles area (Azusa), California. Her father, Henry Charles Cowan, was an engineer and her mother, Guadalupe Ruelas, was a descendant of Mexican parents. She had a younger sister Mae. Rolanda excelled in dance and in 1916, a year after high school graduation, she was chosen as one of six students out of 300 to go to New York and perform as the Morgan Dancers. She acted on Broadway, performed at the Globe Theatre as part of the “The Rose Girl” show, joined the cast of the Music Box Revue, and went on to tour with the Ziegfeld Follies in Europe. Rolando was a contemporary of Isadora Duncan.

In 1923 in New York, she met Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957), a caricaturist, illustrator and painter who earned high acclaim as an illustrator for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Collier’s and Vogue. They traveled to Cuba, China, Bali, the Philippines, throughout Europe and North Africa during the late 1920s. A trip to Paris in 1926, is where Rolanda’s interest in painting began. The couple married in 1930, spent the summer traveling with the screen actress Claudette Colbert followed by nine months in Bali where Rolando took hundreds of photographs. They returned to Southeast Asia (Java, Bali, India, Vietnam) in 1933, Covarrubias as a Guggenheim Fellow and Rosa as a photographer whose work would become part of Miguel’s book, Island of Bali.

Self Portrait
Photogram

She began experimenting with photograms in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Autorretrato (1945)
Gouache
40 x 33 cm
Acervo Museo Blaisten

In 1935, the couple moved to Covarrubias’ childhood home in Tizapán, outside of Mexico City. Covarrubias taught ethnology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia and became the artistic director and director of administration for a new department at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Palace of Fine Arts. His task was to add an Academy of Dance. Rolanda hosted numerous dinner parties known for the dynamic company, food and elaborate ceramic dishes. She also began painting portraits of her friends. Her first portrait was of Dolores del Río, a famous Mexican actress and lifelong friend of the Covarrubias’. Rosa spent much time with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and other significant artists who encouraged her to paint.

Autorretrato (Self-Portrait), 1952
Oil on canvas, 337⁄8 x 433⁄8 in.
Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City
[Also part of an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art – March 12, 2017 to July 16, 2017]

With her marriage crumbling, Rolanda painted this self portrait of her in turmoil. Her hands clasped her ears as if refusing to hear reality. The clock in the lower right symbolizes the passing of her youth. The tossing figures represent Mexico City dance company where Covarrubias was the director, and where he met a dancer 30 years his junior — the affair tore their marriage apart.

After Covarrubias’s death in 1957, Rolanda remained close with their friends including Georgia O’Keeffe, John Huston, and Mary and Nelson Rockefeller. Rolanda grew particularly close with Luis Barragan, an architect who encouraged her to continue pursuing her art. She visited Covarrubias’s grave weekly until her death in 1970. Barragan was the sole heir and executor of her estate. Many of her works are now part of the collection of the Acervo Museo Blaisten.

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