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The Artist Behind the Skeletons

by Brent May


By Leigh Morrow – The Eye, Huatulco

After dying in obscurity and being buried in an unmarked grave over a century ago, José Guadalupe Posada, must smile with some irony this time of year at his enduring popularity as Dias de los Muertos begins again. Whether you recognize the name, the work of Posada, who was born the seventh son to working class parents of Indian descent in Aguascalientes in 1852, has left an indelible fingerprint on the Mexican culture and  continues to shape art, design, politics and spirit in the country.

Even those who are casual observers of art will recognize the work for which he is most known and which forms a fixture in the imagery of this Mexican holiday celebrated every Nov 1st and 2nd. His engraved illustrations of Calaveras (skeletons and skulls) helped transform Dias de los Muertos from a morbid practice of mourning, to a celebration of life.   A prolific artist, illustrator and printer, Posada created over 20,000 drawings during his lifetime. Perhaps the most famous is the “The Skull of the Female Dandy”- “Calavera de la Catrina”.  Posada portrays “The Catrina” as a fleshless skull topped with a fancy wide brimmed bonnet replete with large billowing feathers meant to satirize the life of the upper class, the bourgeois during the reign of Porfirio Diaz.

José Posada’s folk art and political satire connected with current events of the day and combined perfectly to express the attitudes of working class Mexican people.  His career started at the age of 16 when he apprenticed with José Trinidad Pedroza, a well-known printer and publisher of the late 1800′s. His early work in lithography used engraved metals and woods. From these, prints would be created which the poor then bought as inexpensive literature. Posada began to experiment with the political satire incorporating it into the lithography and etching techniques that he would later become famous for. The artist’s workshop was also a watering hole for members of the community and Posada found himself surrounded by outspoken individuals who voiced their concerns about the current social and political scene.

In a move to Leon, which was prompted by angry politicians in Aguascalientes who had been poorly depicted in Posada’s satirical drawings, Posada married and began to raise a family, garnering income not only from his drawings, but designing covers for books and matchboxes and teaching lithography at a local school. By all accounts he was happy and fulfilled, but a horrific flood in 1888 forced his family to flee to Mexico City, and this would be a turning point in his career. The artist forged an important allegiance with Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, the city’s leading publisher. Together they created leaflets which they  distributed into the teeming city streets for a penny apiece. These cheap bullets of information were crammed with Posada’s illustrations covering a myriad of social commentaries.  Although many who bought these penny papers were illiterate, they could still “read” what Posada’s illustrations were commenting on, a tribute to their effectiveness.  His black and white drawings depicted the absurdity of taking life, and power-mad dictators like Diaz, too seriously.

Posada is credited with educating the general populace concerning the political injustices of the day, which ultimately culminated in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Increasingly Posada turned to the symbolism of the calavera or skeleton to depict his political satires. Graphically these images literally jumped off the pages and were very effective for creating attention.  Posada understood that the skeleton symbolism was deeply ingrained in Mexican.  Posada aimed to remind the common man that physical life is temporal while the spirit remains eternal and more importantly that in death everyone is equal despite one’s economic status or position.  Death, as he depicted it, is a great equalizer that spares no one

“One of the things about the Calavera, is that we have one inside us”, quips Jim Nikas, a Posada researcher. Nikas and his wife Maryanne have amassed the largest collection of Posada’s works in the United States. “There is no getting around it”, he said in a recent interview. “There is one inside each of us. So when you remove the clothing and the skin, you get the same structure of bones beneath them.  It becomes a universal symbol. That is one of the reasons the Day of the Dead has gained so much popularity because the imagery is so universal”
In a recent Art Design blog David Lozeau, an artist who often utilizes Day of the Dead motifs,  said “His using those traditional roots to design illustrations of current events in a new creative style to help sell his newspapers, gave the current modern day Catrina her look along with skeletons engaged in all sorts of activities. Out for a bicycle ride while dressed for a fancy ball, for example. Posada’s work is the most commonly used, redrawn, and re-interpreted—even more than Frida Kahlo or any other artist in that genre.”

“There was a stripped-down essence to the celebration of the life-and-death cycle here—the grinning skulls often looked downright jolly. As a result, Posada was able to appropriate the recognizable symbols of his own culture to meet the needs of his social critique”.
Posada’s influence over other artists was significant. Diego Rivera was inspired by Posada’s attention to the working class, and would often stop by his shop not far from where Diego was studying at the San Carlos Academy of Art in Mexico City, and watch him work.  Years later he credited Posada as having been a great influence on his artistic direction.  One of Rivera’s famous paintings, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” pays visual homage to Posada, as the famous skeleton image of the Catrina, is there front and center.

Posada outlived his wife and son, and died penniless in relative obscurity.  It would not be until 1920 that his talent achieved recognition on a national and international level. Like Van Gogh, Monet and Gauguin, Posada’s real fame came posthumously.   Soon, a film is about to be released on the life and times of José Posada.  Searching for Posada, Art and Revolutions is a documentary on the illustrations that significantly influenced social movements, from battling fascism to protesting wars and crusading for civil rights.  José Posada, printmaker to the Mexican people, has despite death, lived on, his spirit as eternal as his art.

Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at  www.gosanagustinillo.com


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