In this post, we’re providing a Blast from Holidays Past, featuring graphic art that we used in the Halloween and Día de Muertos exhibit “LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery.” As part of that exhibit, which occurred here at the Library of Congress back in 2017, we presented some spooky covers from the Brazilian chapbook genre known as literatura de cordel, as well as some posters created by Library of Congress artist Joon Yi. Behind the scenes here at the Library, the catalog from this exhibit developed into the research guide “Halloween & Día de Muertos Resources,” which I lovingly update every year around this time!
The literatura de cordel covers in the exhibit included the two above and the three below. At the exhibit itself, we had quite a few Brazilian visitors who were charmed by having literatura de cordel featured, but they did point out to me that Brazilians don’t widely celebrate Halloween or Día de Muertos. In fact, Halloween, which is sometimes called ‘Dia das Bruxas’ (Witches’ Day) in Brazil, is a very recent import that Brazilians adopted from North American popular culture. In response, some Brazilians have created a new holiday, “Saci Day,” which celebrates one of Brazil’s popular supernatural legends, a one-legged forest sprite named Saci.
Of course, we didn’t intend to suggest that Halloween was a Brazilian favorite or a typical theme of cordel literature. The exhibit featured a lot of supernatural treasures only tangentially related to Halloween or Día de Muertos, from ghost stories and songs to horror movies and macabre literature. Cordel chapbooks often feature colorful, stylized, and even whimsical representations of vampires, werewolves, and animated skeletons, making them resonate clearly with Halloween and Día de Muertos imagery in the same way that the first filmed version of “Frankenstein” and the first edition of Poe’s “The Raven” do, even though neither of those treasures is directly Halloween related. See the three covers below for some great examples of supernatural imagery appropriate for, but not exclusive to, these holidays!
Besides the cordel chapbooks, a real graphic highlight of the exhibit was a set of posters created by our Library of Congress colleague Joon Yi. Combining the Library’s characteristic color scheme with a beautiful vampire, the first Halloween poster manages to fit in numerous graphic Halloween elements: the full moon, a black cat, jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, a haunted house, a witch, a skull, and a spider, while also using the stars and moon to spell out “LOC.”
Joon’s second poster shows Harry Houdini performing his famous “Water Torture Cell” escape, as in this photo from the Library’s collections. The exhibit featured a chamber dedicated to Houdini, who enjoyed debunking claims of ghosts, spirit visitations, and other aspects of the supernatural. In the poster, Houdini is flanked by Edgar Allen Poe (with tentacles!) and Abraham Lincoln (as a merman); the exhibit featured the rare first printing of Poe’s poem “The Raven” and a spirit photograph of Houdini apparently being visited by Lincoln’s ghost. More scary details in the poster include the eyeball in the moon and the skulls on the men’s swimsuits, while two curvy ghosts make the moon into another “LOC.” My colleague Andrea Decker also pointed out the resemblance of the overall design to the tarot card known as the Hanged Man, which adds to the spooky overtones of the image.
The first of Joon’s Día de Muertos posters combines calaveras, sugar-skull makeup, flowers, and other aspects of traditional Mexican imagery. The central figure, with her skull face, flowers, and headdress hearkens back to the famous print of La Calavera Catrina by Jose Guadalupe Posada. The Piedra del Sol, or Aztec Sun Stone, which is superimposed over the moon, evokes Mexica culture and hints at the Catrina’s Indigenous ancestor: the Aztec goddess Mictēcacihuātl. In this context, the Sacred Heart in her hand carries a double meaning, resonating with the well-known Aztec ritual of heart sacrifice. The smaller figure is a representation of a calavera, or skeleton, playing musical instruments–another century-old Mexican tradition visible in this early print. The butterflies which transform the sunstone into an “LOC” also contribute to the Mexican Día de Muertos imagery; for as our friends at the Smithsonian tell us:
“According to pre-Hispanic folklore, the migrating butterflies carried the souls of ancestors visiting from the afterlife. For centuries, Mexico’s monarchs have served as a powerful cultural symbol of connecting the living to the dead.”
Finally, for the fourth poster, and the second Día de Muertos poster, Joon chose a different color scheme more consonant with the Día de Muertos tradition of vibrantly painted skulls and bright flowers and foliage. This poster features the Mexican artist Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, best known simply as Frida Kahlo. The 2017 exhibit included an ofrenda or altar dedicated to Kahlo. As our colleagues in the Hispanic Division wrote at the time:
“In this altar we celebrate the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), who is considered of one Mexico’s greatest artists. Kahlo’s life and work have inspired movies, novels, countless studies, and an almost cult following of admirers. This altar celebrates Frida Kahlo as one of the most influential Mexican artists of the 20th century.
Kahlo is one of the most beloved icons of Mexican art, and is considered one of the greatest masters of self-portraiture and surrealism. Having suffered an accident when she was young, she was forced to be in bed for most of her life, hence her love of self-portraiture. Her paintings were a mirror of her emotional landscape, some including lush and colorful elements like flowers, plants, animals, and traditional Mexican iconography, while others incorporated elements that symbolized the pain that she was enduring. Kahlo was married to the muralist Diego Rivera, making them one of the most celebrated artistic couples in the history of art and Mexican culture.”
In the poster, Kahlo is dressed in a traditional style of “Tehuana dress” including a huipil and layered skirt, and wears a flower headdress, as she often did for photos. The Sacred Heart she holds resonates with the imagery of hearts in paintings like “The Two Fridas,” as well as the imagery of thorns in such works as “Self Portrait, Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser.” Looking closely, you may notice that Kahlo’s earrings are little heads, representing her husband Diego Rivera. The dove at the top of the poster recalls Kahlo’s nickname; her parents famously called her marriage to Rivera “the elephant and the dove.” She also included a dove in her most famous self-portrait of the couple. The hummingbird and butterflies recall another of her famous self-portraits, and the colorful leaves and flowers evoke the spirit of her art and of Día de Muertos altars or ofrendas.
To say a little about the Mexican name of the holiday, the earlier name was “Día de Muertos,” which means “Day of the Dead” but also “Ancestors’ Day.” In Mexico in the colonial era, several Indigenous celebrations of the ancestors were combined with the Catholic All Souls Day, creating the current Día de Muertos holiday. When the name was rendered in English, since “dead” is not a noun, we had to add the definite article, and the name of the holiday became “Day of THE Dead.” As the New York nonprofit Mano a Mano points out, the “los” in the contemporary Spanish phrase “Día de los Muertos” seems to have come from a translation of the English phrase “Day of the Dead” back into Spanish. The “los” was rarely used in Latin America before the 1960s–however, now both names are used. When we created the exhibit and the resource guide, we chose the older name.
So, from the American Folklife Center, we wish you a Happy Halloween and a Feliz Día de Muertos. Thanks for allowing us to reminisce about the 2017 exhibit and to present some of its graphic treasures here on the blog. If you want to learn more about these traditions, please visit our resource guide to these holidays at this link.