The Posada Adventure

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The artists of that movement made references to Posada's unique style, which is at once folkloric and modernist, because they saw it as quintessentially Mexican. The Mexican muralists also gave Posada an important connection to Colorado. In the 1930s, French artist Jean Charlot went to work with Rivera in Mexico, where he was exposed to the Posada prints. Years later, in 1947 and 1948, Charlot was serving as art-school director at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Charlot made a point of publicizing Posada's work, which he recognized as the chief inspiration for the Mexican muralist movement. The CSFAC was in a perfect position to benefit from Charlot's insight, because the institution's Taylor Museum had been created to collect art of the Southwest and Mexico. The Taylor Museum put together a collection of Posada's work and in 1947 commissioned the Arroyo firm to reprint a portfolio of 100 of the artist's woodblock prints.

The Taylor Museum has loaned the Museo many of the Posada broadsides included in the exhibition; others are on loan from the Denver Art Museum. The set of 100 woodblock prints, a few of which are hung on the wall (the rest are displayed in a showcase), are from the Museo's own permanent collection and were a gift of Denver collector Allen Espinlaub.

These posthumously printed woodblocks are quite different from the broadsides Posada did during his lifetime. The broadsides, which were sold on the street for a penny or so, were meant to be ephemeral--meant to be thrown away--so they were haphazardly printed on cheap newsprint. The woodblocks commissioned by the Taylor Museum, however, are meticulously inked and printed on fine rag papers--and they are beautiful. In one of the plates from the portfolio, a skull surmounts crossed engraver's tools in lieu of crossed bones; it is surely meant by Posada to be a self-portrait. The skull and tools are in a mottled black centered on a field of rich, creamy lavender.

Near the display devoted to the Taylor portfolio is another fine print that is also a later restrike, "Calavera del Montón (Francisco I. Madero)," a humorous caricature of Mexico's first revolutionary president as a strolling skeleton. It was originally done in a zinc-plate etching around 1910. Posada reveals the president as a drunken, sombrero-wearing peasant. Though undated, this print, like the works in the Taylor portfolio, is probably from the '40s, and it looks as though it may have been stamped at the CSFAC's long-closed but world-renowned print shop.

Not only did Posada depict the leading political figures of his day as skeleton sight gags, but he characterized his friends and fellow artists in the same way. In "Aqui Esta la Calavera del A. Vanegas Arroyo," an undated zinc-plate etching from around 1900, Posada has rendered his publisher as a bearded and bespectacled skeleton. The large image of Arroyo is set in a sea of smaller skeletons carrying out the many various labors associated with publishing. "Calaveras de Artesanos" has been printed from a plate of movable type and a zinc plate, which is engraved with a scene of skeletons working at different crafts. Posada uses specific tools and work tables to distinguish the various skeleton artisans that otherwise appear all alike.

In addition to the calaveras prints, Museo director Aguayo has included three tissue-paper cutouts made in 1950 by Mexican artist Lola Cueto that are based on Posada's images. Like many of the prints, these cutouts have been loaned to the Museo by the Taylor Museum. One inspired pairing has Cueto's purple cutout "Gran Fandango" hung next to its source, Posada's "Gran Fandango y Francachela," a type-metal engraving from the early 1900s that has been printed on pale-orange paper.

The paper cutouts are traditional decorations for the Day of the Dead and are often used to adorn the personal home altars that are also part of the celebration. Two of these altars have been custom-made for this show by two Colorado artists known for working in this peculiar form. On one side of the north gallery, diagonally facing the Museo's entrance, is a Day of the Dead altar by Maruca Salazar; opposite is one by Rita Wallace. Both altars are traditionally conceived and incorporate pictures of dead relatives, religious symbols and offerings of food and drink. Salazar's is the more thoroughly unified of the two, owing to the pink fabric that covers the entire altar, on which the icons and offerings have been placed. Also notable in Salazar's piece is the use of contemporary paper cutouts, not unlike the Cueto pieces.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia