Skeletons Out of the Closet

José Guadalupe Posada

by Rebecca Levy

Sample images from the exhibit are available at the end of this article.

A hundred years ago, José Guadalupe Posada routinely made the rounds of printing shops in Mexico City, asking if anyone needed any illustrations. In his pocket, he carried an engraving block and burin, and he would produce the required picture on the spot. Histo- rians guess Posada created somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 images with no pretense of being a fine artist. He saw himself as a technician, a printmaker, a competent draftsman, and a keen observer of his surroundings. One has only to look closely at his frisky skeleton caricatures (calaveras) and devilish assortment of otherworldly creatures to see that imagination as well as observation guided his hand.

Eight years after Posada's death in 1913, his works were still being printed, some in a book called Las Artes Populares en Mexico, but his name was virtually unknown. Artist and art-historian Jean Charlot discovered and purchased a number of images for his collection before discovering that they had all been created by one very talented man. Charlot wrote a magazine article about Posada in 1926 and less than 20 years later the artist's work - illustrations in newspapers sold for a penny on the streets of Mexico, children's stories, propaganda speeches, and even recipes for love - appeared in a museum exhibition in Mexico City which later traveled to Chicago. Despite his personal obscurity, Posada's images, particularly the calaveras, had by that time already been identified as quintessential Mexican art images and had inspired a whole new generation of artists, including Charlot, Diego Rivera, and Jose Clemente Orozco. Posada was born in 1852 in Aquascalientes and worked in Leon, Guanajuato, and Mexico City. His work continues to provide insight into the history of Mexico as well as inspiration for today's working artists.

Sylvia Orozco, curator of the current exhibition of Posada's work at Austin's Mexic-Arte Museum, approached this exhibition with the experienced eye of a museum professional as well as the touch of an artist under Posada's spell. Orozco was founding director of the Museum and now resides in Hawaii where she works as a painter and long-distance contributor to Mexic-Arte's ongoing program. She provides a historical context for understanding Posada's images as well as a visceral experience for the visitor. In a sense, the design of the exhibition is so particular that it becomes a "site-specific installation," with Posada's imagery as the medium used by Orozco as artist. A huge circular tissue paper kite hangs suspended from the ceiling in one gallery and representative images by the artist have been painted in large scale on gallery walls throughout. Posada's work is displayed against the painted images. Small books are presented in cases. In the back gallery, children (of all ages) can make prints of their own in an activity area, and videos about the artist will be available. Mexic-Arte produced a full-color poster for the exhibition. There are few details left unattended.

The exhibit features over 300 works including examples of penny press newspapers and "popular broadsides" describing national disasters, crimes of passion, love letters, games, and the omnipresent calaveras. These objects were borrowed from a number of sources, including the Jean Charlot Collection at the University of Hawaii Library, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano in San Antonio, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and from Mexic-Arte Museum's collection. Finally, the name of José Guadalupe Posada has become as widely regarded in the art world as the images of cavorting calaveras he employed in his prints.

The show continues through November 25. September 16, at 2pm, Dr. Ron Tyler, Director of the Texas State Historical Association who organized an earlier Posada exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, will speak about the artist. A number of private and public sources provided funding for this exhibition, including the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sample images from the José Guadalupe Posada exhibit:
  1. Las Bicicletas
  2. Calaveras de las conquets meseras
  3. Calaveras en monton al precio de un decimal...
  4. Las Verdaderas Causas del Temblor
  5. Mexico para los Mexicanos los Rurales
Note: Images are in JPEG format.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle