The late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once famously said, “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t.” While the novelist never crossed paths with Mexican printmaker and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), her words aptly capture the essence of his work during a time of great social and political upheaval in Mexico, especially his calaveras or depictions of skeletons.
Posada’s striking illustrations graced the covers of books, newspapers, magazines, flyers, posters and commercial ads. His legacy inspired artists in the Chicano movement in the 1970s and continues to influence artists in the U.S., Mexico and beyond as they seek to address political and social issues through various art forms.
The Library of Congress boasts one of the most extensive collections of Posada’s work in the United States, providing a valuable resource for understanding Mexican culture. This treasure trove of prints, housed within the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, originated from a generous gift and bequest from Caroline and Erwin Swann, a private collector who acquired a significant cache of Posada zinc blocks and broadsides during their travels in Mexico in the 1970s.
Posada helped popularize the calavera as a satirical graphic motif, often printed with rhyming ballads or corridos. The Aguascalientes engraver created tens of thousands of illustrated broadsides and flyers brimming with biting political humor, frequently targeting historical figures and political candidates. The vivid visual content ensured that the message could reach the Mexican masses, even those who were illiterate. The songs accompanying his images became part of an oral tradition, imparting morals, customs and political commentary.
Sara W. Duke, a librarian in the Prints and Photographs Division, characterized some of these broadsides as “ephemeral,” selling for mere pennies. They resembled the supermarket tabloids of their time, covering topics like suicide and true crime.
“They were fascinating. He was really publishing quickly,” said Duke. “Some of the poetry (from these broadsides) has come down through the generations as songs, and people in Mexico and Texas still sung them in the 2000s.”
One of his most famous creations, a broadside titled “Calaveras del montón, número 1,” is featured prominently on a vibrant community altar assembled by the Library’s Hispanic Reading Room as part of the “Día de los Muertos,” an annual celebration throughout Mexico and the rest of Latin America to honor and remember deceased loved ones. The Library owns the zinc block Posada used for the image, a blend of photo etching and hand engraving.
The print on pink ground wood paper, also known as “La Calavera Oaxaqueña,” features one of Posada’s most striking portrayals of skeletons in motion. It depicts a menacing, machete-wielding calavera surrounded by skeletons. Dressed in a charro outfit, this angry-looking male skeleton is shown clenching his fists while producing, as the title suggests, fresh new heaps of calaveras. Skulls lie at his feet, creating a whirlwind of truly morbid action.
Posada created festive representations of death, and as noted by critics, his skeletons became his undeniable contribution to art. Calavera images inspired by Posada’s oeuvre are now used to decorate altars on November 1 and 2 (the Roman Catholic celebrations for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively).
Katherine Blood, a librarian in the Prints and Photographs Division, notes that Posada was not the first to use calaveras in the Mexican popular press. Also, the motif of death had been depicted in artists’ images dating back to the Middle Ages, “featuring animated skeletons that underscore the idea of death as the great equalizer—that we all share our mortality, regardless of rank or merit.”
However, “Posada popularized them as a national symbol (in Mexico) and is deeply-associated with them today. There are many American artists in our collection and wider world whose work is influenced by Posada, including Ester Hernández, Juan Fuentes, Enrique Chagoya and numerous others,” added Blood.
A prolific artist during turbulent times in Mexico, Posada—or “don Lupe” as his friends and collaborators affectionately called him,—often used his calavera creations to lampoon the upper class, bourgeois life and the corruption of the political elite. The skulls, such as his iconic “La Calavera Catrina,” remind us that death is a universal experience that comes to us all, rich or poor.