Friday, February 02, 2007

Posada's Calaveras

Jose Guadalupe Posada was born on this day in 1852 in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

The son of a baker, at 16 Posada became an apprentice to a local printer, Jose Trinidad Pedroza, from whom he learned engraving on wood and metal and lithography. At 19, he began to contribute lithographed satirical cartoons about the local jefes to Pedroza's journal, El Jicote, which became so popular that each edition which contained Posada's work sold out as quickly as it could be printed. The more popular El Jicote became, the less welcome Pedroza and Posada were among the local jefes, so a year later they moved to the town of Leon de los Aldamas. There Posada ran Pedroza's print shop and eventually bought it from him, eking out a living through commercial assignments such as cigar and liquor ads and labels, as well as contributing traditional drawings and lithograph reproductions of paintings to local publications.

In 1888, Posada lost his shop in a disastrous flood and moved to Mexico City, where he hooked up with Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, a national publisher of broadsides and chapbooks. The literary content of Vanegas Arroyo's publications was pure pulp, and Posada indulged the words by providing garish lead-engraved or zinc-etched cartoons of grisly crimes, violent riots and disasters, depictions of physical deformities and supernatural phenomena, and bustling social and political reportage. He worked quickly, briefly studying a text and then rapidly sketching out his illustrations, producing a printing plate as little as an hour after conceiving his designs.

Posada's on-the-spot inspirations were nourished by the deeply-rooted imagery and attitudes of his country: his most famous illustrations, known as calaveras, emerge from the bemused Spanish/Mexican stoicism regarding death and the sights associated with the celebration of All Saints Day (the Day of the Dead) each year on November 2. Posada's calaveras were prints in which skeletons mime (sometimes gleefully) a variety of ordinary daily activities, from selling newspapers to dancing and drinking to courting and seducing; yet Posada took his skeleton drawings a few steps further, responding to the emerging Mexican thirst for revolution against the Diaz dictatorship by showing skeletons as Zapatistas doing battle with the cavalry or triumphantly leading bloody revolt (such as in the Oaxaca calavera, 1903) or even as ghastly historical portraits (The Calavera of Senor Madero, 1913) -- in effect, using the culturally rich details of the Day of the Dead as a medium for expressionist social commentary.

Although he was sometimes jailed for the brutal honesty of his work, he toiled on humbly and indefatigably, producing more than 20,000 engravings before dying in poverty and obscurity, at the age of 61, on January 20, 1913 in Mexico City.

Mexican artists of the next generation saw him as their precursor: Rivera revered him, putting him in a place of honor in his mural for the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City, with Posada's own Calavera catrina on his arm; and Orozco was moved to say: "Posada is the equal of the greatest artists, an admirable lesson in simplicity, humility, equilibrium and dignity. A strong contrast, indeed, to the hatred and the servile attitudes so common today."

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