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Breathing Life into the Day of the Dead: the Calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada

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The calavera, or skull, is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican celebration of the dead that has both Indigenous and Spanish Catholic roots. The Prints and Photographs Division holds a treasure-trove of prints by eminent Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Posada helped popularize the calavera as a satirical graphic motif featuring skeletal figures often printed together with a ballad or corrido. His work, which has come to be closely identified with the Day of the Dead, continues to be celebrated around the holiday, particularly in Aguascalientes, his hometown.

Posada produced much of his work for the publishing firm of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, creating illustrations on countless themes including religion, revolutionary politics, popular entertainment, and of course death. Posada’s calaveras were often printed on single sheets as broadsides and created for distribution on November 2nd. For some admirers, they constitute his most significant work. Most of the Prints and Photographs Division’s Posada calaveras come from the collection of Erwin Swann, who discovered a set of works by Posada in Mexico shortly before the collector’s death.

This calavera, credited both to Posada and to artist Manuel Manilla, illustrates a fencing scene from the play Don Juan Tenorio, a Spanish play that is often staged as part of Day of the Dead festivities in which the death of the titular hero plays a central role. Although Posada is credited with popularizing the calavera in print, Manilla is thought by some to be the inventor of this graphic form.

La Calavera de Don Juan Tenorio. (Don Juan Tenorio’s calavera). Etching by José Guadalupe Posada. Published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo (Firm), between 1909 and 1917.

Posada’s Calaveras del montón, número 1 is a whirlwind of morbid action showing a machete-wielding calavera in the process of producing a pile of new calaveras.

Calaveras del montón, número 1. (Calaveras from the heap, number 1). Relief etchings and relief cuts by José Guadalupe Posada. Published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo (Firm), 1910.

Calavera del cólera morbo shows an array of skulls with jewelry, tools, books and other everyday objects surrounding a human-headed snake, and the accompanying ballad makes it clear that the cholera epidemics of Posada’s era did not discriminate by social class— rich and poor were equally vulnerable to the lethal disease.

La calavera del cólera morbo. (The calavera of the morbid cholera). Etching by José Guadalupe Posada. Published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo (Firm), 1910.

Posada’s calaveras often caricatured the living — even Posada’s publisher’s time came as a calavera in La calavera del editor popular Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. The image is paired with a poem that refers to the many kinds of material Arroyo published, including poems, religious tracts and tributes to the dead. The image contains references to some of the themes covered in his firm’s publications: violence (see the gun and dagger), religion (see the cross on one of the scattered sheets of paper) and class (see the peasant in a sombrero at Arroyo’s right side), to name just a few. Among those surrounding Arroyo in the image are calaveras hard at work in his shop, including one on the left of the image preparing a proof. The image is of particular interest to those of us curious about the kind of environment in which Posada might have worked.

La calavera del editor popular Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. (The calavera of popular editor Antonio Vanegas Arroyo). Etching by José Guadalupe Posada. Published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo (Firm), 1917.

As a child of Mexican heritage growing up in California, I remember seeing striking skeletal figurines and sugar skulls in tourist spots like Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, particularly around Halloween and Día de Muertos celebrations. At the time I knew nothing of the history of the calavera, particularly in printed form. Now familiar with the work of Posada, I see these fun, flashy decorations in the same popular tradition as Posada’s illustrations.

Olvera Street in the oldest part of downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Carol Highsmith, 2012.

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