Celebrate The Day of the Dead with The Classic Skeleton Art of José Guadalupe Posada

Posada Calavera Catrina

In Mex­i­co on Novem­ber 2, mor­tal­i­ty is approached with music and laugh­ter.

“On the Day of the Dead, when the spir­its come back to us,” explains the Dr. Vig­il char­ac­ter in the 1984 film of Mal­colm Lowry’s Under the Vol­cano, “the road from heav­en must be made easy, and not slip­pery with tears.”

The souls of the dead are wel­comed back with offer­ings of food and drink. Skulls and frol­ick­ing skele­tons, often dressed in full cos­tume, are depict­ed on alters, food and else­where — a play­ful reminder that all of us, despite our van­i­ties, will one day turn to dust.

The ori­gins of the Day of the Dead and its basic motifs can be traced back 3000 years, to the Aztecs, but the satir­i­cal skele­tons of its present-day iconog­ra­phy bear the strong influ­ence of one man who died 101 years ago: the print­mak­er and draughts­man José Guadalupe Posa­da.

Posa­da was an obscure news­pa­per illus­tra­tor when he set­tled in Mex­i­co City in 1888 and began work­ing for a com­pa­ny that pub­lished graph­ic fly­ers designed to bring the news of the day to a large­ly illit­er­ate pub­lic. Posada’s engrav­ings soon caught on.

“Long drawn to the sen­sa­tion­al,” writes Jesse Cordes Sel­bin at the Hen­ry Ran­som Cen­ter, “Posada’s inter­est cen­tered on such fan­tas­tic and unsa­vory aspects of life as mur­ders, rob­beries, bull­fights, polit­i­cal scan­dals, and illic­it love affairs. While his polit­i­cal work alter­nate­ly sat­i­rized Pres­i­dent Por­firio Díaz and laud­ed the pop­ulist rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­ers Emil­iano Zap­a­ta and Fran­cis­co Madero, for the most part his prints suc­cess­ful­ly struck the fine line between hard-hit­ting and light-heart­ed, res­onat­ing wide­ly through­out Mex­i­co.”


Despite their hum­ble pur­pose, Posada’s engrav­ings were a major influ­ence on the devel­op­ment of 20th cen­tu­ry Mex­i­can art. Octavio Paz described his tech­nique as “a min­i­mum of lines and a max­i­mum of expres­sion.” In his intro­duc­tion to Mex­i­co: Splen­dors of Thir­ty Cen­turies, Paz writes, “By birthright Posa­da belongs to a man­ner that has left its stamp on the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry: Expres­sion­ism. Unlike the major­i­ty of Expres­sion­ist artists, how­ev­er, Posa­da nev­er took him­self too seri­ous­ly.”

Oth­ers, how­ev­er, did. The mural­ists who flour­ished in post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Mex­i­co revered Posa­da. Diego Rivera and José Clemente Oroz­co, in par­tic­u­lar, praised him as an inspi­ra­tional fig­ure. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Oroz­co writes:

Posa­da used to work in full view, behind the shop win­dows, and on my way to school and back, four times a day, I would stop and spend a few enchant­ed min­utes in watch­ing him, and some­times I even ven­tured to enter the shop and snatch up a bit of the met­al shav­ings that fell from the min­i­mum-coat­ed met­al plate as the mas­ter’s graver passed over it. This was the push that first set my imag­i­na­tion in motion and impelled me to cov­er paper with my ear­li­est lit­tle fig­ures; this was my awak­en­ing to the exis­tence of the art of paint­ing.

The most influ­en­tial of Posada’s works were his Calav­eras, mean­ing “skulls,” or, by exten­sion, “skele­tons.” Per­haps the most famous work from the series is Calav­era Cat­ri­na (above), a zinc etch­ing com­plet­ed in about 1910. It depicts a woman of the social class known as the Catrins (from a Span­ish word mean­ing “over-ele­gant”), a group who denied their Maya her­itage and thought of them­selves only as Euro­pean.

In 1947 Diego Rivera paid homage to Posa­da by plac­ing him at the cen­ter of his panoram­ic Dream of a Sun­day After­noon in the Alame­da Cen­tral with a full-length ver­sion of the Calav­era Cat­ri­na on his arm, while Rivera him­self, depict­ed as a young boy, stands on the oth­er side hold­ing her bony hand. For more of Posada’s Calav­eras, scroll down.

The Folk Dance Beyond the Grave:

Posada Folk Dance Beyond Grave

Anoth­er zinc etch­ing from around 1910, El Jarabe en ultra­tum­ba (“The Folk Dance Beyond the Grave”) depicts a mer­ry group of skele­tons eat­ing, drink­ing, mak­ing music and danc­ing the tra­di­tion­al jarabe. The repro­duc­tion is from the posthu­mous 1930 mono­graph Las Obras de José Guadalupe Posa­da, Grabador Mex­i­cano.

Calav­era from Oax­a­ca:

Posada Calavera Oaxaquena

Calav­era Oax­aque­ña (“Calav­era from Oax­a­ca”) was first pub­lished on a broad­side in 1910. It shows a proud-look­ing skele­ton dressed as a char­ro, run­ning past a crowd of skele­tons with a blood-stained knife in his hand.

Calav­era of Don Quixote:

Posada Calavera Don Quixote

In this etch­ing made some­time between 1910 and Posada’s death in 1913, Don Quixote rides into bat­tle wear­ing an upside-down bar­ber’s basin he imag­ines to be the leg­endary hel­met of Mam­bri­no, a sol­id-gold rel­ic said to make its wear­er invul­ner­a­ble. He van­quish­es every foe. “This is the calav­era of Don Quixote,” says the cap­tion on the orig­i­nal broad­side pub­li­ca­tion, “the first-class one, the match­less one, the gigan­tic one.”

Click on the images above to view them in a larg­er for­mat. You can view more prints by Posa­da at MoMA and The Pub­lic Domain Review.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles & Ray Eames’ Short Film on the Mex­i­can Day of the Dead (1957)

Fri­da Kahlo and Diego Rivera Vis­it Leon Trot­sky in Mex­i­co, 1938

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

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