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In Focus: The Calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada

By Gail S. Myhre

José Posada (1852-1913), Mexican lithographer and printmaker, is best remembered for his calaveras (skull) etchings. These have been adopted across Mexico and elsewhere as iconic images used in celebration of Dia de los Muertos, which takes place during November 1 and 2, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day in the Catholic calendar. Posada's most famous piece, La Calavera Catrina or The Elegant Lady Skeleton (zinc etching, ca. 1910), has been widely reproduced not only in prints but also by numerous modern Mexican artists and artisans in such varied media as clay, tile, papier mache and metalwork.

Born in Aguascalientes, Mexico on February 2, 1852, José Posada is listed on a 1967 census document as "painter." At the age of sixteen he became an apprentice to the printer and publisher José Pedroza, where he learned lithography and engraving, eventually purchasing Pedroza's shop in the town of León de los Aldamas. His most prolific and important work, however, was done in the Mexico City printing shop of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, where he began as a staff artist around 1890 and soon became the publisher's chief artist. In Mexico City Posada abandoned lithography and began to work first with engraving on type metal and later with relief etching on zinc. Unfortunately, since many of the original sheets and books have disappeared, it is often difficult or impossible to determine the specific subject or date of a Posada illustration.

Posada's illustrations were made primarily as headers for broadsides, cheap one page leaflets with brightly printed graphics which reported the news and social issues of the day. Posada was intensely political, favoring the revolutionary Zapatistas, and he used his calaveras to great effect as social satire. Calaveras art might also based on popular songs or stories, as with Posada's Calavera Don Qijote (type metal engraving, ca. 1905). They might also illustrate everyday life, as seen in several small calaveras portraying market women, or in the engraving Calaveras de los patinadores -- Skeletons of the Streetcleaners (type metal engraving, ca. 1910).

Such illustrations would have found a responsive audience in the general Mexican population, given the wide cultural familiarity with skull and skeleton aesthetic forms in pre-Colombian Mayan art. Though to modern American eyes these depictions may appear macabre, the calaveras were accepted by contemporary Mexican viewers as salutary reminders of the eternity of the spirit and the equality of all men in death. This attitude may be seen quite clearly in Posada's Gran Fandango y Francachela de Todos las Calaveras -- Happy Dance and Wild Party of all the Skeletons (type metal engraving, c. 1910).

Other artists working for the print house of Vanegas Arroyo used similar, if somewhat less nuanced, imagery, and in fact the print Calavera Zapatista by Manuel Manilla (1830-ca. 1895) was long considered to be one of Posada's. José Posada continued to work as a commercial illustrator with Vanegas Arroyo until his death from enteritis on January 20, 1913.

Posada's influence on later generations of Mexican artists is undeniable. Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) includes a calaveras modeled on Posada's Catrina as a deliberate homage in his fresco painting Sueno de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central -- Dream of a Sunday Afternoon In Alameda Park (1947-1948). In the mural, Posada himself walks arm in arm with his skeletal creation, while Rivera depicts himself as a child holding her opposite hand. As a young boy José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), also an artist of the Muralist movement, visited Posada in his Mexico City print shop, and in his autobiography wrote, “This was my awakening to the existence of the art of painting.”

For further reading, a remarkably complete book of Posada's work, José Guadalupe Posada: Ilustrador de la vida Mexicana (ASIN B001O862WW) was published by the Fonda Editorial del la Plastica Mexicana in 1963. More generally available books include Posada's Popular Mexican Prints (selected and edited by Roberto Berdecio and Stanley Appelbaum, ISBN 0486228541, Dover Publications, 1972) and José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Broadside (Diane Miliotes, ISBN 0300121377, Art Institute of Chicago, 2006).


From your Guide: Gail S. Myhre, Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in Roman art and history who also appreciates a wide variety of Modernist movements. You may read all of her Special Exhibition Reviews here.

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