Life After Death: The Resurrection of José Guadalupe Posada
By Andi Teran
Image by José Guadalupe Posada, Untitled broadsheet, circa 1910, relief letterpress print. Collection of Lineaus Hooper Lorette.
In the early 1900s, at the brink of the Mexican Revolution, printmaker José Guadalupe Posada brought a skeleton to life. You’ve likely seen her before —sunken eyes, gleeful grin, an ornate hat like an overturned lampshade exploding with flowers and plumage. La Calavera Catrina, as she is known, is often referred to as the “grand dame of death.” Though she’s become the unofficial cultural symbol of Mexico’s Día de los Muertos holiday, — which is joyously celebrated here in El Paso — she was originally a political cartoon. If Posada were alive today, he might be shocked to learn she achieved mythical status (and subsequent fame via Disney/Pixar’s animated hit, Coco), just as much as he’d be shocked to learn of his place in history as Mexico’s “printmaker of the people.”
After Posada: Revolution, a new exhibition at the El Paso Museum of Art, will showcase more than one hundred of José Guadalupe Posada’s broadsheets and illustrations on loan from the vast and inspiring collection of Lineaus Hooper Lorette, an art collector from Marfa, Texas. To round out the revolutionary era in which Posada lived and worked, the exhibit will also include the photographs of Agustín Víctor Casasola, one of Mexico’s first photojournalists who captured iconic images of the Mexican Revolution (and whose cousin, Alfonso Casasola, kept a photography studio on our side of the border at 511 S. El Paso Street). It will also feature newly commissioned pieces from contemporary artists Andrea Bowers and Cruz Ortiz who were both inspired by Posada and the city of El Paso itself.
“We’re pleased to bring [Posada’s work] to an audience who might be familiar with his calavera images but might not know his name, or may know his name but be unfamiliar with the reach of his work as a printmaker,” says El Paso Museum of Art curator Kate Green. “Often when we see images by Posada in a museum, they’ve been printed posthumously and taken out of context from the original broadsheet publications. Through presenting more than one hundred original broadsheets as well as contextualizing photographs and contemporary installations, we are approaching Posada and his legacy with breadth and depth.”
Born in 1852, Posada grew up in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where he joined the town’s municipal drawing academy and at the age of sixteen served as an apprentice at a local lithography and engraving workshop. He began crafting political illustrations for the local newspaper, El Jicote (or the Bumblebee), which folded soon thereafter — possibly because one of his cartoons had offended a local politician. Moving to Mexico City in 1888, Posada opened his own workshop where he began printing what would become his most well-known caricatures and cartoons for Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, a publisher of street newspapers and magazines known for their satirical slant. Posada’s work illuminated everyday life in Mexico — from disease and natural disasters to the plight of the working class and the underrepresented. He even brought popular corridos to life by illustrating the oppression, love and subversive politics the printed ballads described.
Boldly inked and beautifully detailed, Posada’s calaveras always had something to say. La Calavera Catrina, for instance, was illustrated to lampoon the wealthy Mexican classes who shunned their indigenous heritage in favor of the aristocratic French fashions of the day. She may have also been Posada’s subversive nod to President Porfirio Díaz: a polarizing figure whose economic policies at the time favored the wealthy, privileged few and whose cultural tastes leaned towards European materialism. The end of his reign in 1910 was the start of the Mexican Revolution, and it’s interesting to note that he exiled himself to France.
Though the origins and inspiration behind Posada’s calaveras have never been verified, his work — at more than 15,000 illustrations — speaks for itself. He died three years into the Mexican Revolution in 1913, and though he never stopped working, he died both impoverished and in relative obscurity. “We can’t glean Posada’s beliefs from this exhibit,” Green says, “but what it does show is that he was an illustrator with a wide range of stories and subjects, and he seemed to be sympathetic to labor and some politicians.”
For contemporary artists Andrea Bowers and Cruz Ortiz — who both work with social justice themes — the exhibit offers the opportunity to create something new and site-specific illustrating their connection to Posada’s work as well as their impressions of El Paso. For Bowers, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist whose work centers on the convergence of art and activism, this means signs, slogans and light pieces that reference recent family separation at the border as well as the female fighters — or Soldaderas — of the Mexican Revolution, who both Posada and Casasola referenced in their own work. San Antonio artist Cruz Ortiz — who has also spent time living in El Paso — has his own printmaking studio and a deep relationship with Posada’s practice. His installation, which features a mobile printing press that will be activated during the exhibition, is a visceral and interactive exploration of music, cultural identity and what it means to live within a border landscape.
Beyond the exhibit, the El Paso Museum of Art has planned an inaugural Día de los Muertos celebration — a holiday that has always been important and intrinsic to El Paso and its culture. The Noche de Calaveras concert and procession on November 3 will feature mariachis, dancers and large-scale marionettes created by Mexico City artist collective Colectivo Úlitima Hora, whose impressive pieces are not only featured in Mexico City’s Día de los Muertos celebrations every year but were also in the opening shots of the 2015 James Bond film, Spectre.
After Posada: Revolution is not only a fitting tribute to one of Mexico’s most defining artists; it’s a celebration of the politics behind what it means to be Mexican. For El Paso — the “pass of the north” that both controversially housed Pancho Villa and welcomed refugees during the Mexican Revolution, and as a city that continues to welcome border crossers today — After Posada can serve as a revolution of its own. Posada’s imagery may be ubiquitous, replicated and imitated in our city and lives, but it’s always been in view — almost absorbed subconsciously — and it comes to life anew through the exhibit. As a city that bridges two cultures and two countries like no other, Posada’s work presents us with a bold voice on the politics of division and a lasting reminder of the importance of questioning authority, injustice and our place in the world.
The exhibition runs from October 12, 2018 through January 20, 2019, at the El Paso Museum of Art.