The Mexican ... is familiar with death, jokes about it ... celebrates it
October 10, 2019 10:54 AM   Subscribe

This skeleton, known as “La Catrina,” is one of [José Guadalupe] Posada’s best-known calaveras: illustrations of skeletons, boldly drawn and thickly inked, and much more energetic and expressive than you’d expect, given their biological state. Although the figures have become closely associated with the holiday Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), Posada originally drew his calaveras as political cartoons, commenting on various issues of the day. (“La Catrina,” for instance, was meant to poke fun at early 20th century Mexican women who imitated European fashions.) The Endlessly Adaptable Skeletons of José Guadalupe Posada -- Calaveras created by the Mexican artist have been repurposed for generations, with wildly varying intent. (Atlas Obscura)

La Catrina: Mexico's grande dame of death (SF Gate, 2011)
La Catrina isn't your typical revolutionary babe, but her appearance has everything to do with the Mexican Revolution. Posada's working life paralleled the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz (Wikipedia), whose accomplishments in modernizing and bringing financial stability to Mexico pale against his government's repression, corruption, extravagance (ThoughtCo) and obsession with all things European. Concentration of fantastic wealth in the hands of the privileged few brewed discontent in the hearts of the suffering many, leading to the 1910 rebellion that toppled Diaz in 1911 and became the Mexican Revolution (History Today).

Posada's illustrations brought the stories of the day to the illiterate majority of impoverished Mexicans, both expressing and spreading the prevailing disdain for Porfirio's regime. The image now called "La Calavera Catrina" was published as a broadside in 1910, just as the revolution was picking up steam. Posada's calaveras — La Catrina above all, caricaturizing a high-society lady as a skeleton wearing only a fancy French-style hat — became a sort of satirical obituary for the privileged class. But his Catrina cast a wider net: His original name for her, "La Calavera Garbancera," used a term that in his day referred to native Mexicans who scorned their culture and tried to pass as European.

"La Catrina has been iterated over time," [San Francisco's Mexican Museum curator David de la Torre] said. "It's not just Posada and his work in 1910. There are layers of history. The image and the woman in death goes back to the ancient Aztec period. Posada took his inspiration from Mictecacihuatl, goddess of death and Lady of Mictlan, the underworld." (Learn Religions; see also Aztecs and Tenochtitlan's article on the Aztec God of Death, Mictlantecuhtli)

Also known as Lady of the Dead, Mictecacihuatl was keeper of the bones in the underworld, and she presided over the ancient monthlong Aztec festivals honoring the dead. With Christian beliefs superimposed on the ancient rituals, those celebrations have evolved into today's Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead brings into focus one of the greatest differences between Mexican and U.S. cultures: the 180-degree divide between attitudes toward death. Mexicans keep death (and by extension their dead loved ones) close, treating it with familiarity — even hospitality — instead of dread. La Catrina embodies that philosphy, and yet she is much more than that.

A product of the irrevent spirit and rebellious fervor that ignited a revolution, lovingly kept alive and evolving over time, she remains as relevant today as she was a century ago. She is all the more endearing for reminding us of one more Mexican characteristic that sits 180 degrees from today's U.S. population: The ability to extract humor from protest, to poke fun at the powers that be and at sacred cows of any description with no concern that someone might take offense.
The Calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada (Public Domain Review)
On January 20th 1913, 3 years after the start of the Mexican Revolution, José Guadalupe Posada died at his home in obscurity. He was penniless and buried in an unmarked grave. It was only years later in the 1920s that his work became recognised on a national and international level after it was championed by the French ex-patriot artist Jean Charlot (Wikipedia) who described Posada as “printmaker to the Mexican people”.
Diego Rivera also celebrated Posada, featuring La Catrina in his iconic mural, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central), where she links arms with a likeness of her creator, José Guadalupe Posada, opposite Rivera himself as a child and Frida Kahlo, among many others (Spanish page with annotated images; Google auto-translation). In 1930, Diego Rivera provided an introduction to Monografía : las obras de José Guadalupe Posada, grabador mexicano (Library of Congress entry). In 1979, LOC produced Posada's Mexico (full book via Hathi Trust), in memory of Jean Charlot who had passed away that year.

Atlas Obscura details a number of artists who paid tribute to Posada and his distinctly styled calaveras, from Eleanor B. Roosevelt, a photojournalist and seamstress and the wife of Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who described herself as having a “taste for the unearthly and the macabre,” who turned Posada's Calavera huertista (Huerta's Skeleton) (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) into a needlepoint political piece against The New Deal (another Atlas Obscura article), to Ester Hernández’s 1982 screenprint Sun Mad (Victoria and Albert Museum collections) and her 2012 version, Sun Raid, to the updated version of La calavera de Don Quijote (The skeleton of Don Quixote) (The British Museum) to La Calavera 99%, made by Jim Nikas, Marsha Shaw, and Art Hazelwood, from The Brady Nikas Collection and Posada Art Foundation.
posted by filthy light thief (15 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Previously: Hipsters, Calaveras, and Cultura: Day of the Dead gets complicated (October 30, 2016)

I cribbed the title from vacapinta, quoting from Octavio Paz, in a very old thread, All Things Muertos (October 31, 2003), with a couple links on the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, "Day of the Dead."

Final links: Library of Congress also has a collection of works by José Guadalupe Posada, and a short article, Breathing Life into the Day of the Dead: the Calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada
posted by filthy light thief at 10:57 AM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

My first introduction to Posada's work: La Catrina telenovela series for Spanish classes.
posted by chainsofreedom at 11:54 AM on October 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would argue that Posada's calaveras aren't "badly drawn." They might not be anatomically accurate, but they are excellent illustrations.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:07 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think you may have mis-read the text in italics: it reads "boldly drawn and thickly inked," not "badly drawn" :)
posted by filthy light thief at 12:08 PM on October 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Let me pop in to recommend Funny Bones, Duncan Tonatiuh's picture book about calaveras, printmaking, and Posada himself. I'm a big fan of Tonatiuh's codex-like art style.
posted by Tesseractive at 12:11 PM on October 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also, it's not just the skeletons that have an association with Aztec culture. The marigolds commonly used as Day of the Dead decorations are also symbols of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl (The Lord and Lady of the Houses of the Dead).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:11 PM on October 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh, yes- boldly drawn. I definitely need reading glasses.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I definitely need reading glasses.

Nah, it's a problem with rendering text (previously) ;)

Also, you're a white skull, how would you even wear glasses? You'd need a nose and ears. And eyeballs.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:30 PM on October 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

My job does a lot of business in pottery, and we have a contract with a company that makes talavera and talavera style pottery in Mexico that is sold up here in CA. The woman who owns the factory actually drives the pieces over the border to be sold all over California and Arizona. What's exciting this time of year are the Calaveras and large Catrinas we buy from them to sell. It adds a nice October ambiance to the nursery along with the pumpkins we sell this time of year.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:37 PM on October 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

“We all have a skeleton inside of us,” Nikas says. “So we can all relate.”

Speak for yourself! Hmmph!
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:44 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

“We all have a skeleton inside of us,”

Where your eyes don't go,
a filthy scarecrow waves its broomstick arms
and does a parody of each unconscious thing you do.
When you turn around to look, it's gone behind you.
On its face, it's wearing your confused expression --
where your eyes don't go.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:01 PM on October 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

Bones are heard of, but seldom seen
Except each year around Halloween
But I've got a shockeroo
Right now there's a skeleton locked up inside of you!

Great reads! I've only dived into a few so far, but the post is bookmarked for much later perusal.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:52 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is very nice post, my parents have had a print of the Garbancera in their house for as long as I can remember.

Bones are heard of, but seldom seen
Never forget your teeth are outside bones.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:43 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Your posts are so damn good, flt.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:27 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love the bride and groom pair that gets used in figurines they're very dapper. I see them a lot used in shrine making for married relatives.

Iirc, there was this one matchbox shrine and the outside had this black and white shot of the artist's grandparents, and then the lid slid down and it was the tiny bride and groom calaveras lying side by side holding hands surrounded by orange, red, and yellow marigolds.

Super beautiful and touching tribute.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 9:54 AM on October 12, 2019

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