November 2, 2022

Posada's Calaveras

         As Día de los Muertos celebrations take place in Mexico and around the world, it’s a perfect time to look at the important role printmaking played in the development of the iconography of the holiday.  Not surprisingly, images of skulls to represent the dead have been around in cultures around the world since prehistory, although their tone for Día de los Muertos is more playful than in many other contexts.  (Compare the depictions of skulls in Mexican political art, for example.)  Sugar skulls are the most common form of calavera (skull), but the Calavera Catrina has become an icon of Día de los Muertos and appears everywhere in costumes, decorations, and artwork for the celebrations.
        José Guadalupe Posada (Mexico, 1852-1913) was an artist who worked primarily as a lithographer and political cartoonist, and he is now most famous for his satirical illustrations featuring skeletons playing the roles of various types of people.  La Calavera Catrina is by far the most famous.  Originally a satire of wealthy Mexican women who adopted European fashions, Catrina has now become a figure of affection, although she certainly still retains overtones of that Dance Macabre message that death comes for everyone, the rich as well as the poor.  She was first published in 1910 or 1912, an etching by Posada, not a relief block print, which does allow for lots of detail on her ridiculously fancy hat.  Her popularity also required a boost from Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most famous muralist, who painted a full-length, fully-clothed version of Catrina (and allegedly gave her that name, as well) in a large 1947 mural in Mexico City.
        Catrina was not Posada’s only calavera print, though, and many of the others were relief prints.  Interestingly, Posada engraved most of his relief prints on metals such as zinc and lead rather than on wood, but they were printed in relief, like wood engravings (and unlike most metal engravings).  You can see the engraving style in the use of the multi-line tool for adding shading and texture.  Also, since most of Posada’s work was printed in broadsides and other ephemera, most of his work is undated.  It was also often reused and printed on multiple occasions.  (Illustrating broadsides meant he also did a lot of illustrations of murders, executions, and other gruesomely sensationalist images.)  But let’s have a look at some of the range of Posada’s calaveras.
        Many of these calaveras are going about their business like ordinary people: dancing, having a drink, conversing with each other, playing music…  Many are dressed in different sorts of costumes: military, ecclesiastical, rich, poor, European style, Mexican folk style…  Perhaps it’s just the anatomy of a skull, but they’re usually grinning.  In terms of style, although some of these pictures are quite tiny and simple, there are also some complex, detailed scenes involving large casts of characters.  The crazy biker gang is a great example of how ambitious some of Posada’s pieces can be.  Each with a different sort of hat, and the largest skeleton even with wings, these hellions on wheels are simultaneously whimsical and horrifying, which really illustrates the essence of calaveras.
        I also want to mention one other Día de los Muertos tradition of special interest to me: calaveras literarias.  These are short poems in the form of humorous epitaphs for family and friends, (or famous or historical figures).  Any holiday tradition involving poetry is a winner, as far as I’m concerned.  And when your holidays involve block prints and poetry, now that’s worth celebrating.

[Pictures: Calavera Catrina, originally from c. 1910, reprinted 1943 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Dancing skeletons, and Military figure, metal-plate engravings by Posada, c.1890-1910;

Skeletons riding bicycles, etching or engraving on zinc by Posada , c.1900;

Skeleton behind the bar, etching or engraving on zinc by Posada from Medicinas de Patente de mas Famas, c.188-1910;

Guitar player, etching or engraving on zinc by Posada from De este famoso hipodromo en la pista, c.1889-1895;

Couple conversing, metal-plate engravings by Posada, c.1890-1910

Elegant couple, etching or engraving on zinc by Posada from El Gran Panteon Amoroso, c.1880-1910;

Cupid’s Skeleton, relief prints by Posada, c.1900-1910 (All images from The Met Museum).]

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