In the blood lust context of Mexican culture, where death is splashed on the front pages of newstands in gut-splitting detail, and a grisly Lucha Libre can attract Grannies and infant children alike, the depiction of the skull – the Calavera – is at the quintessence of the cultural iconography, a mixture of the ancient and the modern, and the symbol of the country’s most admired fiesta, The Day of The Dead.
No artist has made skulls more iconic than the eminent talent that was Jose Guadalupe Posada - the propogator of all of those images now synomous with Dia de los Muertos. It wasn’t only the creation of these influential Calaveras, such as the Catrina, that associates Posada with the traditions of this day. He was also the initiator of a macabre ritual, which is still performed ubiquitously on that day: to write and recite a Calavera poem ruminating on death for your loved ones.
But Posada’s skulls are much more than plain metaphors for death. He’s often refered to as a cartoonist – he worked prolifically for various publications, producing satirical prints for El Jicote, El Centavo Perdido, La Gaceta Callejera and El Boletín among others – sending up the asburdities and tyrannies of contemporary politics and religion, (transgressions which landed him in jail more than a view times). Viewing Posada as a cartoonist or satirist would be too reductive, but considering his work with this aim, to entertain the barrios the working-class masses with humour through his art, sheds light on his skulls and skeletons, who ride bicycles, dance jigs and wear dandy’s clothes. They presume death, but also for corruption in society, and even, conversely, in their animated vitality, a celebration of the continuity of life - life if life because of death, and there is no death without life before it.
Perhaps the unique talent Posada possessed to connect with the everyday life and ordinary people that has ensured his enduring legacy, and explains why his work precedes his name. Though his work doesn’t suggest he was in search of the accolades of fame, he has remained underappreciated since his death 100 years ago and relatively little documentary information exists about his personal life. Though he ostensibly inspired a huge number of artists internationally, perfiguring Graphic Art, and inside Mexico (among his admirers were Diego Rivieras and José Clemente Orozco) he never reached the height of recognition of those peers. Even in his native country, he is relatively under-celebrated: He died in poverty and was buried in an umarked mass grave. Currently, a humble presentation of 400 lithographic works (he is rumoured to have produced more than 20,000 in his career) to celebrate his centenary, is currently running at Museo Nacional de la Estampa housed at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.