Jose Guadalupe Posada
Reviewed by Kari Lydersen
Monday, December 23 2002, 11:34 AM
The world of Jose Guadalupe Posada is a world of skeletons. Female skeletons grinning garishly below fancy plumed hats; a "dandy" skeleton dolled up in tailcoat and boots; an army of skeletons revolting against a tassel-shouldered general. It is a world where death is both ever-present and irrelevant. Where mortality is the great equalizer of the classes, mocking the rich and empowering the poor.
Posada's common-man skeletons are crafty and devious; lustful and inebriated; proud and hard-working. They clean streets, forge iron, drink tequila, chase women (or men), ride bicycles and start revolutions. His wealthy skeletons are ridiculous and pompous, frivolous and greedy. Yet with a certain dignity, even in death, nonetheless.
The skeletons (Calaveras in Spanish) are the traditional Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) symbol that Posada popularized through his work at the turn of the century. Posada is considered one of the great radical artists in Mexican history, part of the cultural and political movement that brought down corrupt president Porfirio Diaz and set the stage for the Mexican revolution.
Viva Posada, recently published by the independent Chicago-based Charles H. Kerr Press, is like the perfect trick-or-treat favor, a slim but image-packed collection of Posada's works along with quotes on the artist's significance and legacy from various local and international artists and writers ranging from Frida Kahlo and Octavio Paz to Chicago surrealists Franklin and Penelope Rosemont.
"With his vast work, Posada embodies all things that 'good taste' chooses to ignore," writes Alberto Hijar Serrano. "Thus by opposition he denounces the boundless ignorance of the bourgeois and its corresponding moral and artistic misery. In this regard, his calaveras are a kind of extreme democratic proposition: Death comes to everyone, it is the great equalizer, yet the fact that it affects everyone differently requires that it be represented in many and various ways."
The book is edited and introduced by Carlos Cortez, a Chicago artist and poet of national fame who continues the Posada tradition of radical art tinged with humor and human empathy. One of Cortez's well-known works is a block print of "Posada and His Catrina," Catrina being a wealthy calavera woman grinning coquetishly out from under a luxurious plumed hat. She is among the representations of bourgeois calaveras which Posada used to mock the wealthy, but she is not depicted with hatred; rather with a sense of human empathy that is more revolutionary than hatred.
Just as the wealthy calaveras are not shown as capitalist evil incarnate, neither are the popular masses depicted as noble savages. Rather they delight in their sensuality, lustful and drunk, embodying both the joi de vivre and daily grind that constitutes life for the common man. There is the Calavera of Madero, wearing a sombrero and reposo and carrying a bottle of mezcal, or the dancing calaveras "enjoying the juice from beyond the tomb;" as well as the hard-working calavera street cleaners and calavera tortilla maker.
"Posada was not gentle with his subject matter - his passion and revolutionary spirit made his images bold and poetic in a way that can't be diluted," writes Jen Besemer. While Posada is likely best known for his calaveras, his work ranges far beyond these characters for a huge portfolio of political and darkly humorous work. Various woodcuts show revolutionaries and workers in social realist style -- street cleaners, "the dying revolutionary," "Zapata and his followers" on horseback, "The Revolutionary's Farewell" as he kisses his peasant wife for the last time. Many of the scenes are unabashedly blasphemous in their attacks on power -- such as "The Clergy Attacked" in which peasants throw fruit at a stoop-shouldered clergyman in a carriage.
Other works use a style suited to political cartooning -- like "The Ultimate Candidate," a mustachioed Rockefeller-esque tycoon in high stiff collar and top hat or the statue of "Justice" with her head cut off.A surrealist thread runs through many of the pieces in this book, ranging from the diabolical and twisted -- a woman funneling something into a dead man's ear in "the devil made her do it" -- to whimsical in "The Snail," where a battle between soldiers and peasants is interrupted by a gargantuan snail passing through.
At the same time that he has enough optimism to suggest and celebrate revolution, Posada is full of black humor, chuckling and smirking at the overall doomed human condition. When it comes down to it, he seems to say, all the acts of bourgeois decadence and revolutionary bravery in the world are only like ants scurrying around on the anthill of eternity, destined to end up a pile of dust. This sentiment is expressed in a number of works depicting a comet wiping out humanity; in one the comet is a crazed-looking man hurtling toward a crowd of people under a leering sun.
Then there is "Collision of a Hearse and a Streetcar," where the unfortunate cadaver in all his finery is splayed out on the ground. "To be a master of death may not seem to be an enviable position," write Paul and Beth Garon. "But to see it exercised by Posada is to attach new meaning to the intransigence of mortality."
Viva Posada is available from the Charles H. Kerr Press.