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José Guadalupe Posada: Printmaker to the Mexican People

In January 1913 in Mexico City a printmaker by the name of José Guadalupe Posada died an unremarkable and almost unnoticed death. Yet even by that point in time, countless masses across Mexico would have immediately recognized his popular imagery. In fact, many illiterate citizens relied upon Posada's artistic renderings of current events and political messages to gauge the sociopolitical climate of their era. And an even greater audience viewed his signature calaveras—the iconic images of grinning skeletons commonly associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead—as deeply rooted cultural symbols which doubled as timely social reportage.

If Posada was incongruously anonymous during his own lifetime, it can perhaps be attributed to the quiet manner in which he spent his days. Intricately crafting an estimated 15,000 different images in woodcuts, type-metal engravings, and zinc relief etchings, Posada documented the world around him, ushering in the great age of Mexican printmaking. Yet while his subjects ranged from the local to the national to the supernatural, Posada himself rarely strayed from the lithography shops and small newspapers in which his career was made.

Despite such provincial provenance, when French artist Jean Charlot discovered Posada's work in 1920 he was immediately drawn to the universal scope of the prints and posthumously established Posada as the link between such dichotomies as past and present, Indian and Creole, city and country, and rich and poor. Dubbing him "the printmaker to the Mexican people," Charlot widely publicized and reprinted Posada's work, finding it to be a perfect match for the revolutionary spirit of the time. Prominent Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco began to cite Posada as a profound influence, and the latter once wrote that an early visit to Posada's lithography shop provided "the push that first set my imagination in motion."

Long drawn to the sensational, Posada's interest centered on such fantastic and unsavory aspects of life as murders, robberies, bullfights, political scandals, and illicit love affairs. While his political work alternately satirized President Porfirio Díaz and lauded populist revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Madero, for the most part his prints successfully struck the fine line between hard-hitting and light-hearted, resonating widely throughout Mexico.

One of Posada's greatest contributions to Mexican culture was his popularization of the calaveras images, and it is these humorous works that have most strongly linked his name and art with the cultural history of his nation. In accordance with the Day of the Dead custom, these skeletal engravings depict Death as a smiling figure, bolstering the cultural notion that death is but an extension of life itself—something to be embraced rather than feared. These autumn celebrations of death live on in both Mexico and the United States, where Posada's graphic legacy is resurrected each year in the animated skeleton images that continue to haunt, delight, and pique the imagination of young and old alike.

A collection of Posada's work is available for research at the Ransom Center. Mainly comprising around 360 prints (including penny broadsides, journal covers, and 100 woodcuts), this collection also features posters from a 1943 Posada exhibition, a Mexican lottery ticket depicting a woodcut image of Posada, and numerous illustrated theatrical works for children. Several works by Posada will be on view in the exhibition Mexico's Independence, on display February 2–August 1, 2010 at the Ransom Center.

—Jesse Cordes Selbin