Posada’s Art: Dark or Simply Mexican?

Posted by Glennis Byron on September 18, 2009 in Blog tagged with

Posada’s Art: Dark or Simply Mexican?

By Ms. Ilse M. Bussing


La Nación, one of the main Costa Rican newspapers, has commented extensively on an exciting exhibit that is currently held in the Instituto Cultural de México: “José Guadalupe Posada: ilustrador de la vida mexicana,” [José Guadalupe Posada: Illustrator of Mexican life (or of the Mexican lifestyle)].  The ninety seven engravings include a sample of his most famous works, depicting the calaveras or skulls and skeletons that have become icons for the Día de los Muertos celebration.


            The works in this exhibit can be split into two thematic groups; the first one addresses the complex and violent political and social context that Mexico was experiencing at the end of the nineteenth-century and until the drawing up of the Mexican Constitution in 1927, while the second one depicts carnavalesque images, usually of dancing and celebrating calaveras in different social (and very human) situations.





            The illustrations above exemplify Posada’s interest in depicting the turbulent political atmosphere of the times, as a way of protesting for the violence of war and for the social injustice experienced by the lower and poorer classes of Mexican society.  In this respect, Posada’s art is fulfilling the same objective as Goya’s work (the exhibit in Edinburgh was recently reviewed in a blog by Aspasia Stephanou), focusing on bloody scenes of executions or murders of famous personages during what both artists perceived as senseless killing of innocent people at the mercy of a few, power-hungry minority.


According to the director of the Instituto Cultural de México, Pedro González, in his political work, Posada’s work: “deja oír la voz de los sectores marginados y respalda los ideales de igualdad y justicia que impulsaron la Revolución Mexicana” [“lets the voice of the marginilized groups come through and supports the ideals of equality and justice that propelled the Mexican Revolution”]. Reading this comment, I can’t help but think, this is exactly what the largest current of Latin American authors and artists have attempted to do, not specifically within a Mexican context, but in their own particular reality; art in Latin America, throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, and way into the following century, feels committed to transmitting scenes of social injustice and despair, idealizing “los marginados” and strongly believing in the socially regenerative powers of Art.  This is the reason why a monumental literary figure like Rubén Darío, Nicaraguan poet and author, who delved into Modernism and into Art for Art’s Sake, is still considered an author who was under the influence of European artistic waves, and not a true exponent of the “Latin American condition.”  Posada’s work, however, fits perfectly into the conventional Latin American oeuvre, anxious to depict (often in a magnified or exaggerated way) a sense of injustice “de los de abajo,” of “those below.”





            The second group of Posada’s work illustrates carnavalesque caricatures of death, often dancing and drinking, often humorous, in an attempt, according to Pedro González, to diminish the seriousness and fatality of death: “Su visión es la misma que plantea la celebración del Día de Muertos, es decir, una muerte alegre, juguetona y traviesa, que, más que espantar o asustar, como será el caso de la ocasión en otros páises, recuerda que todos tenemos el mismo fin.” [his vision is the same that Día de Muertos proposes, in other words, a happy, playful and mischievous death, that, instead of just spooking or frightening, which is the case in other countries, reminds us that we will all meet with the same end”].  There are cases, of course when the buffoon-like death is presented as an attempt to expose the horror of war and of death as a ridiculous outcome of it.  However,  I still agree with González’s words, in that the picture of death that is depicted in the famous celebration and transmitted in Posada’s work, is not what we could call a classic Gothic portrayal, generating feelings of fear or even worry.  Even older European portrayals of death (as well as some contemporary ones), which were often grotesque and closer to the carnavalesque, sometimes possess a far greater charge of fear than Posada’s depictions, as in the case of Hyeronimous Bosch’s grotesque but ultimately unnerving and darker portrayals. 


Posada’s celebrating calaveras produce smiles instead of shivers, and this, I believe, is at the heart of the question of whether his art is dark or Gothic, or merely Mexican.   The title of the exhibit of this artist’s work in Costa Rica, “José Guadalupe Posada: ilustrador de la vida mexicana,” underlines the fact that his work is ultimately about life (vida), not death, and that death in the Mexican context belongs to the dimension of life; calaveras can dress up and party like mortals, and it is their humanity which questions and even mocks any Gothic label which might be imposed on them.  

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