Death and Jose Guadalupe Posada

There are ways out. One of them is to give back to death -sometimes not so serious- its little skulls, with games, laughter, and partying, in the style of Don José Guadalupe Posada.

Death and Jose Guadalupe Posada
Engraving by José Guadalupe Posada entitled: Gran fandango y francachela de todas las calaveras.

We have all experienced the pleasant taste of the memories of our childhood; some of us can evoke those stories of our grandparents, where the main attraction was the fascinating images of "happenings", or of skulls and ghosts, which to this day remain in the minds of the Mexican people and which undoubtedly José Guadalupe Posada knew how to capture and reproduce with great wit and irony.

Surviving the conquest, the pre-Columbian concept of death remained in the mentality of the indigenous people and was gaining influence in those who were not indigenous. The blacks who arrived as slaves contributed with their concepts of witchcraft and Santeria, just as the medieval echoes came from Europe in the illustrations of various books, with macabre dances and spooky stories.

When Mexico became independent, the custom of commemorating the Day of the Dead gained particular strength. One of the main customs that transcended was the celebration of the dead children on November 19, a custom that dates back to pre-Hispanic times and is nothing like the Christian feast of All Saints.

Undoubtedly, the social and political environment that the country lived in the last century was decisive for the creativity of José Guadalupe Posada, who knew how to reflect in his work with all clarity the popular sentiment, not only in the aspect of the drawing itself but also in the feelings and social criticism.

In his engravings, Posada left a collection of customs, costumes, images of the repression of the dictatorship, of the convulsion of a country that began a revolution, of the undoubted humor with which Mexicans make fun of death and which foreigners see in disbelief because they do not understand the concept of the afterlife, among many others.

Jose Guadalupe Posada

In the then laughing city of Aguascalientes, in the neighborhood of San Marcos, on February 2, 1852, José Guadalupe Posada was born, the modest engraver who for more than forty years dedicated his artistic work to capturing on paper, the facts and events of nineteenth-century and romantic Mexico that inspired our grandparents and who knew how to extract the secrets of the popular soul from the bowels of the metal, becoming recognized over time as the initiator of a great artistic era in Mexico.

During his early years, he had the opportunity to witness the social events that moved the entire country: the Reform War and the consolidation of the Juarez government between riots and pronunciamientos, the painful chapter of the French invasion, and finally, the oppression of the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz; all events that undoubtedly marked the character of this great Mexican graphic artist.

His beginnings as an engraver date back to his hometown, where he collaborated with the workshop of the young Trinidad Pedroza, producing his first lithography and metal engraving works. His drawings for El Jicote, a pamphlet with a weekly print run of eight hundred copies, which helped Pedroza's political campaign, and which is supposed to have been one of the reasons why Posada and his teacher left Aguascalientes to settle in the city of León de los Aldama in May 1872, stood out for their importance.

In that city, our protagonist had the opportunity to interact with diverse personalities of the political and cultural environment, thanks to his activity in different periodicals such as La Revista de México, La Patria Ilustrada, and El Pueblo Católico. After some years, the development achieved in the environment of Leon was insufficient; after the flooding of the city in 1888 and pushed by the calamities that were experienced that catastrophe, he decided to emigrate to the capital.

Posada and his son around 1900.
Posada and his son around 1900.

The difference between the country of the past and the Mexico of the Porfiriato was enormous. Undoubtedly, progress was being made, but as always, this progress demanded a high price that was increasingly reflected in social discontent. Political freedoms had been reduced to a minimum and censorship was practiced indiscriminately in the media, in newspapers, the possibility of polemic or debate had practically disappeared, and the participation of public opinion was almost nil. For the authorization of laws or the appointment of popular representatives, the will of "Don Porfirio" set the guidelines and was the last word.

Upon arriving in the capital, Posada collected the popular version of these events and captured it in his engravings. The fact that these were a more informal means of communication allowed his drawings to be disseminated in large print runs, as they were not as subject to censorship as some newspapers. This made it possible for the engraver's work to become more widely known since he worked on orders from different printers.

At that time he met one of the most important engravers in the history of the country: Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, who had his workshop in the center of the city, just around the corner from Posada's workshop. This important editor distributed several publications throughout the Republic, including La Gaceta Callejera, where Posada undoubtedly had the opportunity to make public the most important of his prolific work, and where he met other engravers such as Manuel Manilla, who is credited with the creation of "las calaveras" (the skulls).

In the context of Mexico at the end of the century, Posada was able to tell the people what he wanted without fear of repression; through satire and humor, he was able to masterfully capture the popular types, their customs, and rituals, denounced the excesses of the dictatorship, ridiculed caciques and bosses, highlighted popular heroes and recorded the most important events of that historical moment full of intensity and discontent.

Posada (right) at the door of his studio in Mexico City.
Posada (right) at the door of his studio in Mexico City. Image: Wikipedia

But without a doubt, we can affirm that "Posada's skulls" gave his work an original and distinctive character. He made them a popular symbol, through which he captured, with great irony, most of the popular characters and showed the customs of Mexican society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

He stripped death of its tragic character and drew it overflowing with good humor, representing the events of the moment. He accompanied his skulls with a brief text in which the inevitable destiny of the human being was expressed: death, and some characteristics of the character alluded to were highlighted humorously.

We can see as an example, those verses that have transcended time and reached our days:

From this miserable end
none shall escape.
All must skate;
the rancher and the fool,
the generous and the wretched,
the same fate awaits them
either way,
and they may well believe it,
they must come to be:
like us, skulls.

In the skulls, we find the best of José Guadalupe Posada's work"; who left us, among many others, several of Francisco I. Madero and Emiliano Zapata and the famous ones: La calavera catrina, La calavera revuelta -which shows a scene with a large number of skeletons of the Revolution of 1910-, Don Quijote -one of the skulls of the highest quality- and Gran fandango y francachela de todas las calaveras -in which he represents in great detail the customs of a typical party of that time. The dances of death performed by Posada are an endless joy of earthly pleasures, the deceased dance and laugh out loud.

Cover of the Gaceta Callejera of August 1892, in which a Posada drawing illustrates the news of a shooting on a train in Mexico City.
Cover of the Gaceta Callejera of August 1892, in which a Posada drawing illustrates the news of a shooting on a train in Mexico City.

Since then, every November 2, the famous skulls appear along with the traditions of consuming pan de muerto, decorating with sugar skulls, and preparing pumpkin candy; all traditions that feed our strange but very personal habit of familiarizing ourselves with death.

Let the party go on and let more wine come, shout the skeletons of skulls, while a deceased and stark harpist plays the prelude to the syrup that two good compadres, happy to have found each other in the afterlife, are going to celebrate.

One cold morning, in January 1913, a few days before Huerta's betrayal of Madero, the genius who for more than forty years found his source of inspiration in the traditions of the Mexican people, Jose Guadalupe Posada, passed away.

By Carlos Topete Contreras, Source: Correo del Maestro. No. 30, p.47.