Jose Guadalupe Posada is the most influential Mexican artist that you have probably never hear of. I leafed through half a dozen art books featuring Latin American artists, and not one of them mentioned him, despite the fact that his work is probably more familiar to you than the works of Diego Rivera or Jose Clemente Orozco, both of whom admired and were influenced by his work.
Part of the reason for Posada’s relative obscurity is due to his medium—he was an engraver who used the same method’s as Francisco Goya a century earlier before his techniques improved to working lead tintype and zinc plate to produce political circulars, advertisement flyers, broadsheets, printed music, book covers, and similar commercial printing. While great paintings find their way to museums, most of Posada’s work eventually made their way to the dump.
Posada was a folk artist, satirically portraying subjects common to his audience—the working people of Mexico. His caricatures of the rich, the Catholic Church, and society at large were honest, blunt, and usually hilarious. While used for commercial purposes, the caricatures were also political cartoons that lampooned the pompous while holding a mirror up to the faces of the foolish.
Most of the engravings fall into three main categories. First, were the calaveras, meaning skulls or skeletons. Without a doubt, the most popular of Posada’s creations is La Calavera Catrina (originally known as La Calaca Garbancero). Skulls and skeletons are embedded deeply into the culture of Mexico and are a cultural holdover from the Pre-Columbian religions that fused with the death-oriented monastic orders that arrived with the Spaniards. The most popular expression of this is the celebration of November 2, or All Souls Day. Popularly called Day of the Dead, this holiday is growing increasingly popular in the US, in part because of immigration from Mexico and also because the holiday is just plain fun.
For the Day of the Dead, people make elaborate offerings (often on altars) to departed relatives: prints, cakes, bread, candy, and toys in the shape of skulls and skeletons. Posada engraved elaborate skeletons, but used them as social commentary, with the finely dressed skeletons used as a metaphor for a corrupt society. Catrina originally was created for use on a broadside that poked fun at people of indigenous heritage who, in contrast, dressed in the latest French fashions and wore makeup to lighten their skin.
Frequently, Posada drew surprisingly realistic cartoons of prominent politicians, church officials, and businessmen, ridiculing their indifference to the poor (and, not surprisingly, he was frequently jailed).
Perhaps the most lasting tribute to his art is that this tradition continues to this day, either reusing the art of Posada, or making such clever new artwork in his style that it is difficult to tell the new engravings from his originals. You can even find his work in Japanese Manga comics these days.
It might be impossible to count in how many ways the calaveras of Posada are still being used sell merchandise. Last October, a local department store had a whole section of Day of the Dead knickknacks and tchotchkes for sale (all made in China and all featuring the work of Posada). Just last week, I saw a bowling ball bearing a reproduction of La Calavera Caterina.
The second largest category of engravings were those created about disasters. These included floods, fires, famines, droughts and—a particular favorite of mine—those about the return of Halley’s Comet in 1910 (below and to the right). This category also includes artwork that showed the murders or suicides of prominent people, births, and executions. Since Posada was working during the last two decades of the rule of the dictator, , there are many such engravings depicting hangings and firing squads.
The long dictatorship of Diaz began to unravel during 1910, giving rise to the beginnings of the Mexican Revolution, the rise to power and assassination of President Francisco Madero, followed by the beginning of the popular uprising of Emiliano Zapata. These engravings form the bulk of the third category of Posada’s work, and they are a treasure trove for historians, because they document not only the events, but the public’s reactions to them.
Posada got his start working for a printer in Aguascaliente. As a young boy, Jose Clemente Orozco walked to school past the print shop where Posada worked at an open window. Orozco said his first drawings were inspired by the engravings he had seen and that he sometimes copied them in his notebook.
It is hard to over stress how much the folk art—the simple caricatures and drawing of Posada—influenced other artists and writers. When Posada moved to Mexico City, he began working for La Patria Ilustrada, a newspaper. The grandson of the editor was Octavio Paz, who later wrote that he loved the social commentary depicted in the etchings.
Diego Rivera, the great painter and muralist, wrote that Posada was his artistic father and teacher, but the best proof of the engraver’s influence is Rivera’s mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park. The fifty foot fresco was originally created for the lobby of the Prado Hotel, but when an earthquake damaged the hotel, it was painstakingly moved to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera. Showing historical figures from the Spanish Conquest, the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, and the Mexican Revolution, it has La Calavera Catrina as the center figure, with Posada to her left, and a ten year-old Rivera to her right, standing in front of his wife, Frida Kahlo. (For extra credit, can you identify the gentleman standing to the right of Frida?)
While his work was popular during his lifetime, Posada never became wealthy from it, despite producing an incredible number of original prints. An alcoholic, Posada was perennially broke, and died in 1913, at the age of 61. He was buried as a pauper in a public grave, and when no one came forward with the necessary funds, his bones were thrown out after seven years.
There has to be a new word invented, some form of super satirical word, since “irony” is not sufficient to describe the fate of the bones for the artist famous for his drawings of skeletons.
Oh, yes—the diminutive man to the right of Frida is Jose Martí, the Cuban poet and freedom fighter. But that is a story for another day.