It’s not new or uncommon to see the works of a great master painter or singer reach the heights of popularity once they are gone and no longer with us. Their body of work, whether an image that’s reprinted for mass consumption or a well-penned song that endures the radio waves, leaves no doubt, that in death, some artists and their creations achieve veneration like never before.
The prolific Mexican artist, José Guadalupe Posada, whose famous “calavera” drawings have become the signature image for Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, is one artist who fits this mold perfectly. Though Posada achieved some level of attention as a lithographer and illustrator during his living years, and even managed to later influence two of Mexico’s best known muralists in Rivera and Orozco, he never quite seemed to break out of his commercial niche and even died broke and was buried in a pauper cemetery at the very end.
Born in Aguascalientes in 1852, the artist grew into his own at an early age and pursued his innate talents and honed his skills of lithography and printmaking under the watchful eye of mentor, José Trinidad Pedroza. During his apprenticeship, Posada learned lithographic techniques as well as how to print on wood and metal. These skills would serve him well in creating impressions for a wide variety of commercial projects such as personal business logos and book cover designs. He even used his illustrative skills to help “capture the story” behind the political instability and social inequalities of the time. His images aided the illiterate and less fortunate to engage in and understand the issues of the day.
Posada’s work to highlight and inform his fellow citizens of the common political struggles continued when he made the move to León, Guanajuato in 1872. There, along with his respected mentor, Pedroza, he ran a print shop and provided illustrations for a magazine named “El Jicote” or The Hornet. Through this publication, Posada showcased his exceptional designs and delved more into satirizing the prominent political issues and figures of the time.
For several years, Posada worked side-by-side with Pedroza until he bought him out and pursued his interests down a solo track. He continued living and working in León until the catastrophic flood of 1887 prompted him to relocate to Mexico City.
With several years of seasoned work under his belt, Posada quickly opened his own print shop and began producing images for a multitude of well-known publishers. One such publisher was Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, whom Posada would work closely with for many years. Though the work of the two involved many projects, they were best known for publishing their “hojas volantes” for a penny apiece. These were called broadsheets and showcased Posada’s work to the masses. In these leaflets, he exercised his expressive talents and maintained his passion for providing political satire, especially at the height of the tumultuous Porfirio Díaz regime. It was also during his collaborative time with Arroyo, that the artist’s signature “skeletal” prints would reach a larger audience in attempts to equalize a society divided by class and structure at the time.
There’s no doubt Posada’s career was one of many twists and turns. But, as prolific as he was with his tremendous output of more than 20,000 images, it is his “surviving” creation, ironically, of the symbols hollowed out of life, which will have his work live on for years to come.
I am a contributing writer for the Mexico Today Project, which, along with Marca País – Imagen de México “ is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.”
Disclaimer: **Please note that I am being compensated for participation in this project and for attending its launch in Oaxaca. Also note that all posts and written contributions by me will be expressed in an unbiased form with all opinions reflecting my own.