The influence of José Guadalupe Posada leaps to life on multiple Grateful Dead albums and explodes across the Day of the Dead.
Yet few people have heard of the Mexican printmaker.
Organizers at the Albuquerque Museum hope to remedy that omission with “José Guadalupe Posada: Legendary Printmaker of Mexico,” online at cabq.gov/posada and in the museum through May 23, 2021.
Born in Aguascalientes, Posada was a Mexican artist who lived more than 100 years ago. He worked as a lithographer, engraver and cartoonist.
He was perhaps the most influential of all Mexican artists, yet his name has yet to reach the same level of recognition as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo or Rufino Tamayo. Posada’s satirical skeletons, or calaveras, have become the most iconic and celebrated of his work.
“It’s this relatively unknown person who creates one of the most iconic images in Mexico,” curator Josie Lopez said. “In Mexico, he’s so celebrated.”
Posada’s popularity peaked around the same time as Rivera and Kahlo, Lopez said. His 1913 death coincided with the Mexican Revolution, which extended from 1910-1920.
Much of Posada’s background remains elusive.
Sometime in the 1860s Posada received some formal instruction in drawing at the Municipal Academy of Drawing in Aguascalientes. 1867 census records show that by the age of 15, he had registered as a painter.
“Posada engaged with the visual language of the time,” Lopez said. “Modernism was developing. Mexico City was becoming cosmopolitan, on a par with Paris and London.”
By 1871, Posada’s first lithographic political cartoons surfaced in a publication called El Jicote (The Wasp). The artist was just 19. Most of his training took place in printing workshops.
Posada’s subject matter encompassed advertising art, religious images, illustrations for posters, fliers, brochures and books.
His most iconic image remains a calavera wearing a very fashionable, puffy hat ringed with flowers. Rivera crowned her “La Calavera Catrina.” The image reminds all of us that no matter who we are, rich or poor, death is something we all have in common. Today the etching has become the symbol of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.
“At the time when Posada did it, he was critiquing the upper class of Mexico City,” Lopez said.
Rivera incorporated a similar image into a Mexico City mural.
“It’s this incredible figure,”Lopez said. “It’s at the center of this huge mural with all these historic figures in the park. Right next to it is a younger Diego and Posada and Frida is included.”
Although he was known for his political work, Posada spent the majority of his career during the Porfiriato, when Gen. Porfirio Díaz ruled Mexico as president before the revolution. Lauded for modernizing Mexico, he also led his government in repression, corruption, and excess, and had an apparent obsession with European materialism and culture.
“It was a period when Mexico was modernizing,” Lopez said. “But the poorer people were still being exploited.”
The animation and movement Posada instilled in his illustrations elevated him above his fellow artists. His drawing for the Espolòn Tequila Blanco label pulses with the electricity of leaping, running skeletons trying to escape a rooster-straddling Don Quixote.
More recently, the protesters of Occupy Wall Street coopted one of Posada’s illustrations and created “La Calavera 99% (The 99% Skull)” in 2012.
A glance at the Grateful Dead’s catalog shows cavorting calaveras across multiple album covers, T-shirts, key chains and blankets. Disney/Pixar joined the club with the 2017 movie “Coco” as an aspiring musician named Miguel entered the Land of the Dead.
Posada’s figures “engaged in some kind of activity or motion,” Lopez said. “They’re not just static figures. The depiction of death in the form of a skeleton is not new, but Posada engaged with them in his own visual language.”
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, on Nov. 1 and 2. The celebration involves family and friends gathering to pray for and to remember friends and family members who have died.
Posada died a pauper and is interred in an unmarked Mexico City grave.