By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
You’ve probably seen the art of Jose Guadalupe Posadas, reflected and refracted, in video games like Grimm Fandango and movies like The Corpse Bride, which both take their inspiration from the Mexican Day of the Dead and Posadas’ calaveras and calacas (skulls).
To understand Posadas – and the intersection between art and politics – first, you have to understand both the Day of the Dead and the time period when Posadas produced his litographs. The Day of the Day is actually a two-day celebration (November 1 and 2), during which Mexicans make altars to the dead, eat sugar-candy skulls, write funny poems about their friends and family which detail the way in which they will die, and eat bread shaped like skulls. It’s a celebration inspired by Prehispanic rituals and, paradoxically, full of life. For the Day of the Dead is not gloomy or depressing, but made of bright, colourful paper cut into skeleton shapes and painted figurines of the dead.
As for Posadas, and the time period in which he lived, he was a political cartoonist and illustrator during the Porfiriato, the decades-long reign of controversial dictator Porfirio Diaz which ushered in an era of unprecedented economic and technological development, while also causing deep discontent among the lower classes of society. It all exploded into a Revolution in 1910.
While employed with a newspaper, Posadas began to draw illustrations with little captions that lampooned everyday events and people. The key word here is “everyday”. Posadas’ calacas can be seen drinking, smoking, dancing, or taking a stroll down the park. He used his skeletons to poke fun at everyone, but most vividly at the corrupt Porfirian upper classes and their politicians. Later on, with the Revolution in full swing, he drew skeleton soldiers, Revolutionary dead carrying their guns.
Posadas’ illustrations were extremely popular with the masses. Distributed in leaflets, next to songs, news stories and high-society gossip, the appeal of the calaveras was that you didn’t need to know how to read to get the punchline. A fat calavera drinking and stuffing himself with food who bears a resemblance to a famous politician would be immediately recognized. A Revolutionary riding a horse, gun on his shoulder and dashing through a field of skulls, could telegraph the point easily.
The caricatures were popular for another reason. By reducing all the characters to bones and skulls, Posadas’ illustrations worked as an equalizer. Politicians and farmers will both die and rot, and become bones. Watching them naked in this way, bare to the bone, allows the viewer to place himself side by side with important community figures and see eye to eye with them. Gone are the layers of pomp and circumstance. In the reality behind the masks worn by people lies the truth. Posadas strips everyone in his cartoons, shows them to the world as they are. There is no place to hide in his art.
For example, an illustration depicting skeletons on bicycles (a fashionable pastime for the Porfirian elite) lists the names of important newspapers next to the skeletons’ heads and proclaims: “In this famous track/ not a single journalist shall be missing/ death inexorable does not respect/ even those you see here on a bicycle.”
Another illustration with peasant skeletons and skeleton priests proclaims: “It is an honest truth/what this phrase tells us/only those who are not born/never become bones/This is a salad/for all mortals/for even soldiers/will share this nightmare.”
Posadas’ black-and-white illustrations had a profound influence on Mexican society. Not only can his nearly 2,000 surviving illustrations (his output was closer to 20,000) be seen at any Day of the Dead celebration, he could be considered the father of modern Mexican art.
Posadas’ work deeply influenced famous Mexican painter Jose Clement Orozco and muralist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” features La Catrina, in full Posadas outfit, holding hands with a young version of Diego Rivera. Posadas, said Diego Rivera, had been as great as Goya.
A pity then that he ended in a pauper’s grave. Nevertheless, Posadas lives on through his armies of skeletons, which remain vibrant and compelling even a century after they were first etched.