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José Guadalupe Posada: Beyond the Catrina

Published Apr 1, 2009 - (Updated Dec 3, 2012)


Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2009 issue.

Digital photography is so ubiquitous among today’s photojournalists, it is quite possible many cannot fathom the notion of patiently waiting at the one-hour photo lab for their prints to be processed, let alone having to do the processing themselves in their own darkroom. But long before photography came into the journalistic picture, so to speak, and much longer before today’s tabloids became a cultural obsession, Mexican engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada was producing prints depicting accounts of sensational news, events, disasters and murders, with a few commercial ads thrown in for good measure. And the popular masses couldn’t get enough of him. Welcome to 19th-century journalism, Mexican style.

Many of us are quick to recognize Posada’s often used and misused Calavera Catrina illustration, originally intended to poke fun at Mexico’s upper class. But there is much more to the breadth of his work than meets the eye. From an early age in his native Aguascalientes, where he was born in 1852, Posada developed a knack for illustration, largely influenced by older brother Cirilo, a schoolteacher. By the age of 16, he was already working as an apprentice at El Esfuerzo, a local publishing house, where he produced political cartoons while learning printmaking, lithography and engraving techniques. Offended by a caricature, a disgruntled politician forced El Esfuerzo to close down its doors, and Posada was forced to flee to Leon, Guanajuato, to escape the wrath of the authorities.

It was in Leon that Posada flourished as a printmaker, building his own workshop, marrying a local girl, and producing a broad variety of work. And although most of his work in this period is unsigned, he gained recognition among his peers illustrating several daily newspapers, and producing a city map, matchbox covers, religious items and political propaganda. A massive flood that ravaged the city forced Posada to close his workshop and, at age 35, move to Mexico City, where he reached the pinnacle of his career.

In Mexico City, Posada joined the staff of publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, who, aside from legitimate work producing book covers and illustrations, also published vividly shocking, tabloid-style broadsheets with sensationalized accounts of current events, for which Posada created equally lurid prints. From love affairs and crimes of passion to the bizarre and often comical gossip of the day, no stone was left unturned. Vanegas and Posada developed calaveras, or skulls, in which drawings and verses were used to comment on current events and people as if they were dead. To this day, calaveras continue to be a widespread and popular format among journalists and newspapers, particularly around November 2, when Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead.

Posada’s association with Vanegas lasted for 25 years and continued until his death in 1913. Self-regarded as a blue-collar artisan, he died in poverty, largely forgotten, and was buried in a common grave. Dismissed by academicians of his time as being “too popular,” he threw himself into his work throughout his life and took comfort in knowing his work was a true reflection of the people around him.

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