L.A. Stories from the Map Cave: Pageant of the Pacific

Glen Creason, Librarian III, History & Genealogy Department,
illustration of sun with face from pictorial map

To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at the Los Angeles Public Library, we have occasion to show off one of the greatest pictorial maps ever created: The Pageant of the Pacific by the artist José Miguel Covarrubias.

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The Pageant of the Pacific is actually a set of paper copies of six murals created for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco as the storm clouds of World War II gathered around the United States in 1940. As a counterpoint to the growing conflict in Europe that was soon to spread across the globe, the Exposition’s premier exhibit, the Pacific House, highlighted this idyllic part of the world in the Pacific Ocean where peace was still a reality. In some quarters the Pacific Islands were remote and exotic places that were a barrier to war. Yet, at the Pacific House, these islands were more of a link to other peoples and cultures. With airlines now making connections to Asia, America, Australia and other far flung continents, island groups like Malaysia, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia grew nearer and nearer.

The maps come in six sheets reflecting the murals that were 15 by 24 and 9 by 13 feet in dazzling colors applied by Covarrubias and an assistant with a flat duco lacquer with a nitrocellulose base. The set of cartes seen here were distributed with an exhaustive description in a 20 page booklet meticulously written by the artist.

While the paintings strive to point out the links between cultures, there is a breakdown of the three continents that are shown in the geographical scope of the Peoples of the Pacific. The colors are essential to the descriptions of the inhabitants. Despite the concept of four great races of man, Covarubbias uses nine separate hues to illustrate the native peoples of areas. Art Forms of the Pacific covers mostly the indigenous peoples of the area with representations of the native settlers of North America, Middle America, Asia, Indonesia and Melanesia. The Pacific Islands would encompass Papua, the Solomans, Trobriand, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, the Maori of Australia and New Zealand along with Raratonga, Tubuai, the Marqueses and the Native Hawaiians.

Pictorial Map: Peoples of the Pacific

Peoples of the Pacific

Pictorial Map: Art Forms of the Pacific

Art Forms of the Pacific

Fauna and Flora is so rich it must be seen to be believed with ten categories of regions of plants and animals.The color schemes are central in the other maps as well, such as in The Economy, which describes agriculture, livestock ranching, dairy farming, industry, and the dominant dark blue of fishing activity across the wide Pacific.

Pictorial Map: Fauna and Flora of the Pacific

Fauna and Flora of the Pacific

Pictorial Map: Economy of the Pacific

Economy of the Pacific

Native Dwellings are simply drawn as they were built from yurts to palm-thatch roofed huts. Transportation is a tribute the ingenuity of man who looked out at vast oceans and figured a way to journey to new places and people. While the scale may be skewed, the representations of the crafts are accurate despite their aesthetic intention.

Pictorial Map: Native Dwellings of the Pacific

Native Dwellings of the Pacific

Pictorial Map: Transportation of the Pacific

Native Means of Transportation

José Miguel Covarrubias was born in Mexico City in 1904 and quickly distinguished himself as an extremely talented painter, illustrator, and student of art history. By the time he graduated from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria at 14, he was an accomplished and sought-after graphic artist. He immediately gained work and moved to New York City at 19 where he quickly became a member of the literary and artistic scene while doing illustrations for some of the prominent magazines of the day including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. In 1930 he married Rosa Rolando, born in our own Azusa, CA, a dancer and artist who went on to a fine career as a photographer, sometimes illustrating books that Covarrubias authored.

He branched out to set and costume designing for the stage while continuing his work as an artist with a unique style that influenced countless artists in the period. He was very active in the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem jazz scene which inspired him, and he and his wife were close friends with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. After returning to Mexico, Covarrubias and Rosa helped create an academy of national dance that attracted the great José Limón for the initial program in 1950. The murals from the Exposition later were exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and some went back to San Francisco’s World Trade Club. One still hangs in the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.