Years ago I did a show featuring the “poster” paintings of Andres Garcia-Peña, and included in this show were a few paintings that had images of “Calaveras,” or skeletons. People would come into the gallery, look at them for a moment and ask me, “What’s up with all the skeletons?” I know these newcomers to Mexico just made it up the hill from window shopping and browsing down on Boulevard Mijares where they were inundated with images of skeletons and skulls on everything from beach bags and refrigerator magnets to fine art ceramic sculpture. These skeleton figures are usually dressed in very elaborate costumes, with lively smiles and hollow eyes. These images are everywhere and most people attribute them solely to Day of the Dead, but in fact the image of the Calavera was first introduced into an art form by an illustrator, before and during the first few years of the Mexican Revolution, by the name of Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Death in Mexico is treated very differently than in other parts of the world. It is a daily part of life that is celebrated instead of mourned and shunned. Day of the Dead in Mexico is a celebration of the life of deceased loved ones, where altars are built and offerings of the deceased ones favorite things in life are placed, including candies and confectionary in the shapes of skulls and skeletons. But after the publication of Posada’s illustrations of the Calaveras, the image of the skeleton took on a whole different meaning, it became a social and political icon that represented the feelings of the people leading up to the Mexican Revolution.
Jose Guadalupe Posada was born in Aguascalientes in 1852. He attended the academy of art and handicrafts and worked as a trainee in a lithography and intaglio printing studio, before his career as an illustrator. Though he is known for his satirical illustrations, Posada produced lithographs for matchboxes, congratulatory cards and book illustrations. But his influence and contribution to modern Mexican art is the way that he opened the eyes, of what would come to be Mexico’s most important artists, to the art of their environment, folk art. Diego Rivera stated that “Posada is free of any vestige of imitation; he is Mexican through and through.”
The reason that Jose Guadalupe Posada is regarded as Mexico’s first modern artist is because he broke away from the academic form of painting during the Porfirio Diaz Era, where all art being created was European inspired and not reflective of the actual culture. Instead, through his illustrations he became a commentator of everyday life and the social issues in Mexico, and because his illustrations were published in magazines and papers of the times his art and views were very accessible to everyone. During this period in history, the illiteracy rate in Mexico was 86%. Most people picking up a magazine or newspaper of the time could not read the articles and propaganda of these strained times, but could interpret the illustrations of Posada. His influence on the public in the years leading up to the Mexican Revolution is undeniable.
The Calavera was Posada’s most important iconographic contribution to Mexico and its art. The most famous image of his is the engraving entitled “Catrina.” The image is of a skeleton woman wearing a huge hat, a feather boa and a French gown. This illustration was first published in 1913, in the first few years of the Mexican Revolution. She symbolized the schism of the social classes and made a bold statement, that all people, poor or wealthy, famous and loved or shunned and abandoned were all united in death. No matter how we all differ in life, we are at the end all just bones. Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s leader before the revolution was a Francophile. The art of this period looked like the traditional paintings of France; the famous art academy had only European instructors and the upper class dressed in French clothes of the period. Mexican customs and rituals were hidden, and were only rediscovered during and after the revolution. The calavera Catrina, in her French elaborate costume also clearly symbolized the death to Porifirian Society.
Posada died in 1913 and left behind 15,000 engravings: A true historical record of the Mexican people in the turbulent era of the Mexican Revolution. His influence on Mexico’s modern masters like Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco is documented and to this day we are surrounded by his images in every souvenir shop downtown. The calavera and Posada’s Catrina, has inspired artists to this day and has become an undeniable icon of Mexico. So I hope this helps answer the question, “What’s up with all the skeletons.”