Posada’s creation is icon of modern Mexico

As the Day of the Dead festival approaches, one will see elaborately costumed women with faces painted as ornate skeletons, with flowers or a large, feathered hat. It is an iconic costume, but while the skull is a traditional Aztec symbol, La Calavera Catrina’s roots are far more modern.

“La Calavera Garbancera” by Jose Guadalupe Posada.

La Catrina was created by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican printmaker and lithographer. Posada is credited with popularizing the calavera (skeleton) images that are now so common.

Mexicans have a different understanding of death than is found in the U.S.

With Christian religions, there’s an emphasis on what one does in life to deserve the reward of an afterlife.

In Mexico, death is just another part of existence –the next step. Therefore, skulls and skeletons are not scary. They are a symbol of death, but death is not something to fear.

Posada used the calaveras to symbolize the entirety of Mexican society, no matter if one was indigenous or mestizo (mixed race). The skeleton has no skin tone; therefore, one cannot be judged on the surface appearance. Underneath, everyone is the same.

The rule of Mexican president Porfirio Diaz saw a concentration of wealth in the hands of a ruling elite which led to the 1910 rebellion that kicked off the Mexican Revolution. The wealthy few were obsessed with all things European, and this led to Posada’s most iconic illustration. “La Calavera Catrina” was first published in 1910 and satirized high-society with the skeleton wearing an extravagant European-style feathered hat. Posada’s original title was “La Calavera Garbancera,” a term for native Mexicans who rejected their Indian heritage by dressing and wearing light makeup to pass as European.

A broadsheet featuring Jose Guadalupe Posada’s calaveras.

Posada was born in the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes on Feb. 2, 1852. At the age of 15, he was an apprentice at Jose Trinidad Pedroza’s print shop, where he learned lithography and engraving. Pedroza published El Jicote (The Wasp), a critical newspaper, and Posada contributed political cartoons.

Possibly fearing retribution, Pedroza moved to León, Guanajuato in 1872 and Posada joined him within the year with the pair running a print shop. In 1873, Pedroza returned to Aguascalientes, leaving Posada in charge. He remained in Leon for the next 16 years, producing art for advertising, posters, fliers, books and religious images. Some of his best work from that period is found in the book, “Moral Practica.”

Following a flood that damaged his workshop, Posada moved to Mexico City in 1888, where he opened a workshop on Calle Cerrada de Santa Teresa. In the next year Posada began working for publications produced by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. Mexico City’s population was 350,000 with 80% of them illiterate, which meant Posada’s illustrations were key to communicating ideas.

Vanegas Arroyos hired Posada as his chief illustrator whose work could accompany the texts to communicate the ideas regardless of literacy. Posada’s images of folk heroes and politicians, crimes and disasters supported the stories and often stood alone.

Diego Rivera, arguably Mexico’s greatest artist, visited Posada’s workshop when he was a young boy and considered him a mentor.

In the book, “José Guadalupe Posada in the Eyes of Diego Rivera,” produced by Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marín, Rivera states, “Posada had no place in the official art circles of Mexico, and he was not concerned about his immortality. He was sure he had found a place from which the most respected artists of his time had disappeared, and even been forgotten. He knew more about form and movement than any artist I have known. It was he who revealed to me the inherent beauty of the Mexican people, their struggle and their aspirations, and it was he who taught me the supreme lesson of all the arts: nothing can be expressed except through the force of feeling. Hence, the soul of all masterpieces is powerful emotion.”

Posada produced more than 15,000 illustrations during his lifetime but died, relatively unknown, of alcoholism and was buried in an unmarked grave in Mexico City’s DoloresCemetery.

A detail from Diego Rivera’s 1948 mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” La Calaveras Catrina is the central figure, flanked by Rivera, who has painted himself as a young boy, and Jose Guadalupe Posada, the artist who created La Catrina.

In 1948, Diego Rivera immortalized Posada in the mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” which depicted 400 years of Mexican history.

The central figure is La Calaveras Catrina. Rivera has taken Posada’s image, which was originally just head and shoulders, and created a full figure in a long dress with the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec deity, hung around her shoulders like a boa.

Rivera has painted himself as a young boy and he holds her right hand. Her left arm holds the arm of her creator, Posada. By putting La Catrina at the forefront of history, Rivera has elevated Posada’s position in the culture, ensuring his legacy.

Nowadays, La Catrina is ubiquitous and has been appropriated as a symbol of the spirit of Mexico, a turnaround from Posada’s original intent. But as she has taken her place at the forefront of Mexican culture, so Posada’s legacy as the first modern Mexican master is etched in history.

This story first ran in the Sept. 23, 2022, Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.

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