The Posada Adventure

In the last decade or so, the Mexican religious holiday El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has not only been observed in Denver's large Hispanic community, but it has also become a marked occasion for celebration in the city's art world. This is mostly because for years, the Pirate co-op has hosted an annual show with a Day of the Dead theme.

Unfortunately, perhaps because participation is not limited to those with genuine cultural or religious connections to the holiday, these shows have mostly been pretty bad, and many pieces seemed to mock Mexican culture instead of paying homage to it. The most recent Pirate show was better than usual, though it still wasn't very good. Organized by the husband-and-wife art-activist team of Bob Luna and Martha Keating, it featured a mixture of sensitive and significant works intermingled with the irrelevant and irreverent ones.

But regardless of the dubious quality of the Pirate annuals, they have been important, since they raised the visibility of the obscure holiday and so set the stage for other, better shows that also observe the Day of the Dead in some fashion. One such show is Jose Guadalupe Posada: Mexican Printmaker, which currently occupies the two front galleries at Denver's Museo de las Americas. "There's so much interest in the Day of the Dead, we really felt we needed to do this kind of a show," says Museo director and founder Jose Aguayo, who selected inclusions and arranged the exhibit.

The Posada show takes up the broadsides and prints created by an important turn-of-the-century Mexican artist who is little known other than to art historians. But if the name Posada is unfamiliar, his images are not. His signature subject is calaveras (skulls), and for Posada, this also means entire skeletons. These cartoonish images are fairly well-known, if only through the work of other artists who make references to them.

Skeletons are particularly linked to the Day of the Dead, as are pumpkins, candies and graveyards. Such iconography would seem to mean that the Day of the Dead is the Mexican corollary to our own Halloween, but that's not entirely correct--though the two celebrations are linked by the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. The Day of the Dead is actually two days: November 1, All Saints' Day, and November 2, All Souls' Day. Halloween, celebrated on October 31, appears on the Catholic calendar as the eve of All Saints' Day (as in the archaic All Hallows' Eve).

Though all three feast days are celebrated throughout the Catholic world, with Halloween having a hefty secular following, the Day of the Dead is uniquely Mexican (not counting those Pirate shows). It is the product of a cultural hybrid combining European-derived Catholicism with indigenous Meso-American traditions. The ancient Mexican Aztecs were particularly interested in blood sacrifice, and as a result, the skull was an important religious symbol to them. This has carried over into the Day of the Dead, with skulls used as images for holiday decorations and special sugar candies. Posada's calaveras prints at the Museo are another example of skeleton imagery used to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

However, as Museo director Aguayo points out, while the calaveras prints are among Posada's best-known images, they represent only a tiny fraction of the artist's oeuvre.

Posada was born in 1852 in Aguascalientes, a small town north of Mexico City. Little is known of his early life, other than that his father was a modestly successful baker. His older brother, Cirilio, was a teacher who instructed Posada in drawing, which led the younger man to apprentice, at the age of sixteen, in the lithography shop of Trinidad Perdroza. A precocious talent, Posada created for Perdroza satirical political cartoons that mocked the town's government and social order. Though none of these images are included in the show at the Museo, they must have been pretty good, since Posada and Perdroza were forced to flee Aguascalientes in 1872, in fear of retribution from the lampooned local authorities.

Posada settled for the next sixteen years in León de las Aldamas, where he produced a variety of printed articles including illustrations for books, cigar-box designs and more mundane projects such as diplomas and party invitations; he also taught lithography. In 1888 Posada relocated his print shop to downtown Mexico City, in the vicinity of the National Palace. The following year he began working for the publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, whose shop was right next to the Academy of San Carlos, Mexico's most important art school. His relationship with Arroyo would last until Posada's death, in 1913.

Though Posada never was renowned in his lifetime, he was also never without a commission and produced a gigantic body of work with perhaps as many as 2,000 surviving pieces. Despite this tremendous output, Posada might have been totally forgotten if not for the Arroyo shop's address. In the 1920s, Posada was rediscovered by a new generation of Mexican artists who were associated with the Academy of San Carlos and who saw his work in the nooks and crannies--even the basement--of Arroyo's shop next door. Among Posada's earliest champions were Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, two of the key figures in the Mexican mural movement of the '20s and '30s.