SPOTLIGHT STORY

Funny Bones

Literary and artistic calaveras from Mexico’s most famous illustrator, José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913)

The calavera (“skull” or, more broadly, “skeleton”) is one of the most recognizable features of the Day of the Dead celebrations. Yet another equally important calavera associated with the festivities is a more figurative variety: the literary calevera, a satirical poem meant to highlight the shortcomings of a living person, often accompanied by an illustration. The literary calaveras are short, rhyming poems, usually composed of four to twelves lines whose verse mocks the victim’s perceived weaknesses.

José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913) was a Mexican illustrator whose engravings of satirical calaveras, which accompanied these humoristic poems, have become permanently associated with Day of the Dead imagery and literary culture.

Many of Posado’s calaveras were published through the press of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, an editor of cheap broadsides popular with the masses. Working together, Vanegas Arroyo and Posado used calavera images and poems to satirize and mock bourgeois life, the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, and politicians and celebrities of the day. These artistic and poetic calavera provided an outlet for expressing hostility against the privileged or wealthy.

This calavera shows a drunken skeleton wearing a sombrero, serape, and sandals, and holding a bottle of Aguardiente de Parras. The skeleton’s mustache and brand of tequila make him recognizable as Francisco Madero, one of the most important leaders of the Mexican revolution.

Calavera Maderista, José Guadalupe Posada (Collection: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) 

Posada died penniless, and was buried in an unmarked grave. His work was “discovered” in the 1920s by the French ex-patriotic artist Jean Charlot, who called Posada “a printmaker to the Mexican people.” Posada created his best work in his last years, just as the Mexican Revolution was beginning.

Las calaveras de Don Quijote from the portfolio 36 Grabados: José Guadalupe Posada, c. 1910-1913, printed 1943 (Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Posada’s engravings were sometimes so cynical and subversive that they landed him in jail. Posada was not the only engraver who drew taunting political calaveras, but he has become the most famous.

La Gran Calavera de Emiliano Zapata from the portfolio Monografia: Las obras de José Guadalupe Posada, grabador mexicano, José Guadalupe Posadac. 1911-1916, printed 1930 (Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Posada’s calaveras reminded readers that life was short and that everyone, whether rich or poor, famous or anonymous, was ultimately made of the same bones.

Revoltijo de calaveras de muchachos papeleros from the portfolio Monografia: Las obras de José Guadalupe Posada, grabador mexicano, José Guadalupe Posada, 1903, printed 1930 (Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Posada’s calaveras are appreciated for their vivid imagery and for the humorous and human traits that the artist imparted to his skeletons. Posada was also known for his astute depictions of Mexican peasants, loyal readers of satirical broadsides for whom the images of grotesque political leaders found a certain resonance.

El jarabe de ultratumba from the portfolio 36 Grabados: José Guadalupe Posada, José Guadalupe Posada, c. 1910, printed 1943 (Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Posada’s most famous image is perhaps his catrina (catrin, elegant or dandy), a female figure whose fancy clothes (typically a hat with flowers and a fashionable dress) mocked the upper-classes for their vanity. The skeleton’s hat was a fashionable accessory that showed a desire among the Mexican elite to copy European fashions. Posada’s catrina has become an icon of modern Day of the Dead imagery.

Calavera de la Catrina from the portfolio 36 Grabados, José Guadalupe Posada, c. 1910, printed 1943 (Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Literary and artistic calaveras, like the sugar skulls placed as ofranda, symbolize the humor that can be found in death. By poking fun at the living, Posada’s satirical skeletons ridiculed social privilege. Just as the sugar calavera, and the calavera itself, imply that none are immune to death, the artistic and literary calavera demonstrate that not even the wealthiest and most powerful are immune to ridicule. Underneath all the trappings, Posada’s skeletons seem to say, a person is just a bag of bones.

By Maude Bass-Krueger
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