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José Guadalupe Posada - Giving Life to Death

Words:

Edd Norval
March 13, 2018

It's easy to forget the importance and beauty of the Mexican Día de Muertos. Sugar skull tattoos and Mexican imagery have proliferated art over the last decade, but there was one artist who gave life to the celebration by personifying death herself.

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Día de Muertos is a time for families to reflect on the lives and deaths of those they have lost that are close to them. It is a religious and spiritual time, as well as one of great aesthetic beauty - to honour death, they make her look beautiful and offer her worldly belongings.


Children paint sugar skulls and adults build altars, or ofrendas as a way of paying their respects to and welcoming their lost loves to return to them on this day.


A recurring motif throughout the festival is the calavera, a representation of the human skull. These appear everywhere, from the candied sugar skulls to paintings and papier-mâché masks. The festival itself has become synonymous with one particular image - La Calavera Catrina.

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This is a depiction of death as a dapper female skeleton, wearing a large ornate floral hat reminiscent of the ones adored by the European upper-classes of the 20th century. She was first drawn by famous Mexican printmaker and engraver José Guadalupe Posada.


He was known for his political and satirical works that gained prominence in the the national printing press throughout his life (1852 - 1913). He worked from his own studio/shop in the storefront, allowing passersby to watch him in the process of creation.


Although the depiction of death as a dandified lady has become synonymous with the festival, like most of his work, it was intended as a scathing piece of criticism - taking a shot at the way the upper echelons of Mexican society fetishize the European way of conduct and appearance.

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The skull as an image carried significance from the Aztec times - it's the story of life, death, afterlife and re-birth that has been embedded into the Mexican psyche. To Posada, their near sacred reverence made it a powerful tool of critique towards a society that he saw as changing rapidly - one moment they could be used to mock the rich for their frivolous lifestyles, the next they were part of a revolutionary figure fighting for democracy. By personifying the dead, he was able to point out the madness and absurdity of social behaviours.


Having lived through some of the most tumultuous moments in the country's history and concerned with where it was going, he took it upon himself to make the working-class voice heard by using his artwork in many cheap and accessible forms of print sold on the street - even those who were illiterate could take something away from it. His images were structured in such a way as to be able to tell a story, both complimentary to and free-standing alongside their accompanying text.


His work was a huge influence on the post-Mexican Revolution painters, those like Diego Rivera who created the Mexican Muralism movement - carrying many of the same ideals through their artwork as Posada had. They were bold, beautiful, near-religious examinations of what was going on around them.

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His illustrations added aesthetic value to the stories or poems they came with. These 'literary calaveras' were also often satirical and humorous pokes at the aristocrats of the country. Being accessible was essential to his work, the idea of democratised access to things was crucial. In his own way he was a revolutionary figure in Mexican society.


It was the idea of equality that was perhaps the greatest driver behind his choice of skull-related illustrations. For him, death didn't pick sides. Whether you were rich or poor, could afford make-up or had wrinkly skin - you'd be going to the same place eventually anyway.


The art of engraving was and is essential to the foundational growth of Mexican artistic thought and process. Although he ended up dying in poverty, relatively unknown until some time after his death, it was through the recognition of other artists that he was kept alive. His anti-establishment attitude as well as his work made him a pioneer of satire. His injection of intelligence and the sheer commitment he had to making sure his work could be accessed by ordinary people has added to his legacy - making him a figure that will continue to endure and impact Mexican society.

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