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José Guadalupe Posada

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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José Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican engraver. He was born in 1852 in Aguascalientes and worked his most productive years in el Distrito Federal, where he died in 1913.

Posada churned out thousands of engravings that were used to illustrate millions of prints of publications and cheap ephemera. Posada lived in an era when industrialization was eliminating traditional production, which was replaced by a proliferation of cheap, homogenous, mass-produced goods. Industrialization brought with it not just a new material culture, but also the poor, illiterate, laboring, urban consumer class to buy it. This amorphous, city-dwelling swarm of poor industrial workers lacked a recognizable material culture and self-identity, let alone a artistic self-image. Also, as this growing class ranked low on the capitalist economic ladder, the bourgeouisie art world was inattentive to its representation.

Posada was not an artist in the traditional, recognized sense.

As a printmaker, he served as a cog in the wheel of industrial production -- but he was also a talented, expressive craftsperson. In this fertile, in-between arena, he fulfilled his potential to the fullest. It seems unlikely that anyone other than a printmaker -- generating massive quantities of centavo (penny) goods for purchase by thousands of impoverished workers -- could have contributed so significantly to congealing a new capitalist (consumer-oriented) material culture for an under-represented audience. Posada's illustrations filled that exact void. As Posada's works would be disseminated en masse to the calles of el Distrito Federal, he diligently served an audience outside artists' radars, and also helped constitute its identity.

In addition to sheer quantity, Posada excelled in creating potent, lasting images: this is exemplified by his calaveras, and specifically La Calavera Catrina. However, Posada's reputation as an artist developed after his death. In his own lifetime, he lived in poverty and was not recognized as historically significant. He died a widower and was buried in a mass pauper's grave, with no known heirs.

Nonetheless, Posada did have an exciting career, even if it has been overshadowed by posthumous hagiographies.

He was popular among his colleagues in the printmaking business, but existed in an entirely different strata from the European-oriented -- and sometimes just flat-out European -- art world dominant in Mexico at the time. In addition to newspaper illustrations, Posada worked in the consumer market. Posada's work included many advertisements and consumer goods (such as cigar packages) but could also sometimes be the good itself -- for example, Posada churned out many corridos (one-sheets with vivid illustrations and song lyrics, to serve the literate and illiterate alike).

The gap between bourgeoise art and Posada's craft was deepened even further as the Porfiriato gave European aesthetic official governmental support even more aggressively than before. Posada's dancing skeletons and wild, scandalous, provocative scenes -- with their often politically acerbic content -- were far outside the scope of what was considered art.

Nonetheless, against this harsh backdrop to his career, Posada did manage to gain a sort of artistic legacy even before his death: imitation by his contemporary printmakers. In some cases, the appropriation of his more vivid imagery makes it unclear whether some works were actually by Posada or a fellow engraver. The most enduring imitation was of his calaveras. Originating from Dia de los Muertos traditions, Posada took this instantly recognizable, indigenous, religiously, personally significant image and used it to create brilliant, resonant satire.

After his death, Posada's work continued to percolate. As his countless ephemeral prints steeped in the public conscience, the art world caught wind and Posada thus began his afterlife as a populist symbol.

The parallels between Posada's audience and the Mexican muralists' audience served to deepen his fame. Posada became an abstraction: not a well-known person, as little is known of his life and he does not even have a grave, but as a symbol, through his work, of the poor, urban, labor dimension of Mexico. Thus, the muralists eagerly credited Posada (and thereby the proletariat) as the source of their inspiration. Several artists have cited Posada as a sort of father figure to their own careers. However, the stories they tell -- such as Orozco claiming to have watched Posada as a little boy, or Diego positioning himself as the child of Posada's artwork -- are most certainly embellishments, or seek to bridge a connection that was informed by subsequent developments, theories and meanings attributed to Posada.

Posada's calaveras -- especially La Calavera Catrina -- are pop icons whose meaning is re-defined in successive generations.

Initially, Posada's La Calavera Catrina was a critique, caricature, depiction (all bundled in one) of Europeanized indigenous people. Simply showing an indigenous woman wearing European clothing could have seemed like racist mockery -- a sort of deprecatory drag show. However, by showing a calavera wearing European clothing, Posada communicates a well-formulated point with a single, stinging image.

La Calavera Catrina -- oft known as simply La Catrina -- has endured in the century since his death. Famously, Diego Rivera appropriated La Catrina (and Posada himself) in his 1948 mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central. In this painting, Rivera shows himself as the young son of Posada and La Catrina. In this painting, La Catrina stands for Posada's entire body of work (Posada created thousands of works, of which she is the most famous); she is a full-fledged, glorious avatar for Mexico herself and her mestizaje identity (Posada created her as a satire of mestizaje Europeanization, but subsequent generations re-interpreted her); and she is, above all, and most enduringly an iconic image who gives the work an instant recognizability (even the most ignorant millennial in Gringolandia will at least know the work is Mexican). Rivera's Sueño was not a humble homage to honor Posada, the printmaker who died in anonymous poverty. Instead, Rivera was appropriating Posada and La Catrina for his own agenda, as pop icons with multi-dimensional symbolism.

Posada has also endured as the figurehead of a technical legacy.

Subsequent artists made use of prints as well -- and with their filial love for Posada, they might have seen this as a sort of homage to the man himself, not the later saint conjured as an icon. Rivera, Orozco, and the other Mexican muralists had prints made of details of their artwork for enjoyment by people in their own homes. In this manner -- not in Orozco's apocryphal claim to have grown up watching Posada work, or in Rivera's synthetic family portrait -- Posada was indeed a predecessor to the 20th century's great Mexican muralists. Prints are inherently an egalitarian, democratic means that can rapidly disseminate images that shape visual culture and, by portraying Mexican identity, can become symbols of Mexican identity. A painting in a single location, celebrated by academics and those lucky enough to visit, does not become part of Mexican identity worldwide. When that painting is reproduced as a print, found in countless restaurants and homes across the globe, then it has achieved its full purpose -- a point understood by Posada and the muralists alike.

Biographical sketch

Posada was born in Aguascalientes in 1852.

Posada was born 2 February 1852 at number 47 Calle de Los Angeles (later Calle de Posada) in the city of Aguascalientes, in central Mexico. The fourth of six (some sources say eight) children, of which only three survived, he was baptized in the Parroquia de la Asunción. Both of his parents were of Indian descent and illiterate. Germán Posada, his father, was a baker who owned a small shop; Petra Aguilar, his mother, was a housewife. Stavans, 1990

Posada's family was winnowed away by the health crises of poverty, but Posada's talent must have emerged visibly because he was trained as an artist from a young age.

Their oldest son, José María de la Concepción, died when still a child. The second, José Cirilo, born in 1839, became a schoolteacher. He taught José Guadalupe to read and write, until the latter and his younger brother Ciriaco were sent to a municipal school in the San Marcos neighborhood. Apparently, Posada enjoyed drawing even as a child, for he made humorous portraits of José Cirilo and his young pulis. Unfortunately, none of these early artistic experiments can be found. Stavans, 1990

It seems likely that Posada studied with Antonio Varela at the Municipal Academy of Drawing in Aguascalientes. By 1867, records in Aguascalientes list him as a painter. 1867 he was listed in the records of his home town, Aguascalientes, as a painter.

Posada began his career as an apprentice at José Pedroza's Taller de Trinidad Pedroza. From the beginning, Posada's art was politically charged and acerbic.

Posada learned lithography and engraving by creating caricatures and other illustrations at the Taller, a lithographic printing and publishing business.

By 1867 he began practicing the "trade of the painter," and the following year he apprenticed in the lithography workshop of Trinidad Pedroza. Politically active, Pedroza supported the creation of a local government and spoke out against the ineffectiveness of city politicians -- particularly the influential Colonel Jesús Gómez Portugal -- and the economic and military intervention of France and the United States in Mexican affairs. In addition to the lithography, Posada learned the basic printmaking techniques of engraving wood and metal. He also began producing lampoons and illustrations for magazines and books, selling some to Pedroza's own independent newspaper, El Jicote (The Wasp). Many of them featured Colonel Portugal as their main target. Stavans, 1990

In 1872, Posada and Pedroza relocated to Léon.

In 1872 the firm moved to Léon, where it seems also to have had letterpress facilities, and in 1876 Posada took control of the business when Pedroza returned to Aguascalientes. From January 1884 to some time in 1888 Posada was on the payroll of Léon High School as the professor of practical lithogrpahy. Only a tiny percentage of Mexico's children had access to secondary education, so this was a position of some prestige, even though he seems to have had few students. It required a facility in draughtsmanship, as is attested by his work from this period, and an interest in the technical aspects of lithography, in plate-making and in printing process. For reasons that are unclear, Posada moved to Mexico City in 1888, and from then until his death in 1913 he produced a great deal of work for a wide variety of book, newspaper and broadsheet publishers. Gretton, 1992

Porfiriato begins.

Seizing power in a coup in 1876, Díaz and his allies would rule the country for the next thirty-five years, a period known in Mexico as the Porfiriato.

Destruction of Léon

A flood destroyed most of the city.

Move to Mexico City

Posada went to work for Irineo Paz, grandfather of author Octavio Paz.
Posada also opened his own workshops.

Posada and Arroyo

Posada soon became head illustrator at the Taller Antonio Vanegas Arroyo.

Posada alsoamde illustrations and caricature for other editorials like Argos, La Patria, El Ahuzote and El Hijo del Ahuizote. All opposed El Porfiriato. He is reported to have worked for over fifty different publications in all.

Mexican Revolution

Death in Mexico City

His wife died in 1910, and he died in 1913.

Posada and Arroyo

The literature on Posada claims that he made images for Vanegas Arroyo in two linked ways. The first was to make relief printing surfaces by gouging directly into blocks of typemetal. The second was by drawing directly on a sheet of zinc with an acid-resistant medium, and then etching the sheet so that the drawn lines stood in relief on its otherwise lowered surface. Like the carved typemetal sheets, the block could then be made to print along with type-set text. The literature has constructed Posada's work as laborious and direct, at a time when all-conquering photo-mechanical processes were reducing the labour of producing printed imagery and making it indrect. Posada's images, and the objects into which Vanegas Arroyo incorporated them, are generally taken to be renunciations of a homgenising capitalist culture which 'development' was forcing on Mexico. Ineed, their status as 'popular' prints has largely depended on this construction of their refusal to participate in the development of a modernised, capitalist, 'mass' image culture. Gretton, 1994

Post-mortem appreciation


He made drawings of various sorts, on white card or card covered with compressed china-clay coated with indian ink, from which white lines could be scraped (i.e., scraper-board). These imaes were then photographed on to sheets of metal coated with a light-sensitive acid resist, and turned, by etching the resulting acid-resistant photographic plate, into relief-printing line-blocks. Line-block technology was not exactly new. It was under development from the 1860s, and became widely avaialable in the 1880s. Scraperboard emerged as a way of making art-work for line-blocks from the 1870s. Posada seems to have been one of the earliest graphic artists to have embraced it as a direct substitute for wood-engraving. Given that Posada was so quick to take up this facilitating new technology, his adoption of a set of style-features which gave the appearance the very antithesis of facility makes it necessary to re-think the relationships between assimilation of and opposition to dominant or 'high' culture in his work, and thus in 'popular' culture. Gretton, 1994

Deliberate distress

During all the quarter-century in which Posada collaborated with him, Vanegas Arroyo produced songsheets and flysheets which looked cheap. They were printed, often very badly, using broken type and jumbled fonts, on noticeably poor-quality paper. The small books which Arroyo made and published tended to be printed rather better than the broadsheets. The execution of the broadsheets might without the evidence of the books be thought of as mere incompetence. The way in which Vanegas Arroyo treated the blocks which were made from Posada's art work contributed to the self-devaluing of the broadsheets he made. Standard practice was to make a lineblock on a sheet of zing slightly larger all around than the image. This margin would be lowered, and the zinc sheet nailed round the unseen edge on to a block of wood to raise the sheet type-high and make it ready for printing. Posada usually worked in this way when supplying blocks to the periodical press ... . Over and over aain however, when his work was to be used or occasional sheets, he and Arroyo ignored this trick. The blocks as printed intead draw out attention to the inky nailheads, or to sockets gouged in the image to countersink the nails. Gretton, 1994

Soemtimes even fractured blocks were reused, nailed surviving pieces back together to complete a planned print run, after fatigue fractures had developed from careless make-ready and printing. Arroyo frequently did this, though he could have had Posada make a new block from old artwork, which he did at least sometimes.


Who was the popular? Who are the so-called people? Who were the People? What was 'popular' culture or 'folk' culture?

Vanegas Arroyo claimed the status of editor popular; contemporaries acknowledged his 'popularismo'. Posada worked in the 1890s for a periodical called El Popular, and from 1897 for its satirical offshoot la Risa del Popular. For Vanegas Arroyo and for the milieux in which his products were made, sold and consumed, both the ideas of 'popular' in the sense of 'of the people' and the idea of popularism as a more or less conscious cultural position thus had a currency and a comprehensibility. Gretton, 1994

As we seek to understand who was the audience -- usually referred to as the people -- we arrive at a sort of tautology.

It is reasonable, perhaps even necessary, to think of periodicals such as Montes de Oca's El Popular or the occasional broadsheets which Vanegas Arroyo produced as having made the Mexican People, in that these commodities enabled an otherwise unconstituted group to share a culture,to share, and to display the sharing of, aspirations, values and hostilities. Gretton, 1994

Nationhood began to emerge "thanks to the railway, the telegraph, and the capitalist transformation of even the domestic consumer-goods market, was becoming much more of a day-to-day reality." Gretton, 1994

The way in which literacy was distributed and the poor state of Mexico's transport networks suggests that Vanegas Arroyo's market was located predominantly among the metropolitan population. His reliance on street vendors, the way he made his products, the sorts of products he made, all suggest that his wares sold primarily to men who were among the less wealthy and the less well-educated of his potential metropolitan customers. Gretton, 1994

It is not easy to define this primary market more sharply, and calling it 'popular' begs the question. Ernesto Laclau notes in an essay on populism that the concept is used in political discourse without any fixed meaning ... . Gretton, 1994

Yet there could be mutual hostility between so-called popular culture and rural agrarians. "Yet the emergenceof the desire to participate in the life of the nation as People required the emergence of a double distinction from the discourse and the cultureal values of the elite and from that of the new contenders for power." Gretton, 1994

from elite culture, from emergent working-class attitudes, to dominant cultural practices and from the culture of rural poverty.
Pamphlets became vectors of culture.

In important ways the purchase of Vanegas Arroyo's commodities was a slavish imitation of the cultural comportments of the elite, and thus distinguished their consumers from the dispossessed. But these objects, and ... the behaviors associated with them, were also antagonistic to the values of the elite. Through Vanegas Arroyo's commodities their consumers could redefine their own disrespectfulness and disreputability, neither of them modes of hostility availabel to the working class, and develop a distance from elite culture based not on a critical consciousness of its oppressiveness and corruption but on contradictory mode of participation in it. Capitalist acculturation, we argue, dialctically produced both 'proletarian' and 'popular' cultural forms. Gretton, 1994

Arroyo's attitude to periodical publication confirms this interpretation of the style of the occasional prints as displaying the opposite of dominant ideas of value and decorum. He did print some weekly periodicals, and was the named editor of one, El Centavo Perdido, for a while. Yet the advertisemnts on the back covers of the chapbooks which he produced never mention his periodical business. Instead he promoted himself as the producer of news and other occasional broadsheets, song sheets and small books, hiding from this public his continued close involvement in te prestigious and influential activity of newspaper publication. It seems at least possible that he publicised himself as a specialist in the non-periodical mode because there were amonghis customers those who did not wish to associate themselves through their commodity consumption with the buying or regular reading of a newspaper, but who nonetheless felt the need to know about particualr news items on a frequent, as opposed to a regular, basis. In other words Vanegas Arroyo's decision clearly to distinguish his non-periodical work form the world of hte journals may have been shaped at least as much by considerations of form as by those of content. Gretton, 1994

Murder and Suicide, R133, shows the nice with the margins
Suceso Nunca Visto R170 shows inky naiheads
La proxima ejucion de Francisco Guerrero flaunts countersunk excavations

Their work was for the people but in fact they did do some other work, which they tried to hide.
Posada and Arroyo arguably made deliberate choices to devalue their work by bourgeoise standards.

Posada also intentionally used crude, caricature, schematic styles to represent a so-called popular aesthetic. But details -- the stylish movement, the anatomical mastery, the expert flattening of perspective -- all betray that this is an intentional stylistic choice. The question is -- for whom is this choice being made? And why would this audience be the recipient?

There is a tension between an illusion of "hacked-about carelessness and coarseness" that is most highly evidence of one of Posada's most famous images, El Motin de los Estudiantes.

Here was a man who thrived in the absence of the traditional art institutions which would later celebrate him and bring him into our classroom today. What I love about his artwork the most is just how subvervise he is to this very day.

Posada's single-sheet imagery for Vanegas Arroyo covered a limited range of subjects: crimes, executions, punishments not earthly but supernatural, disasters, low-life scandals and the deeds of bandits, and a restricted range of events from the national and international news. It was presented in a limited range of forms: corridos, ejemplos, occasional news-sheets, and calaveras. The imagery of the calaveras has a greater symbolic resonance and iconographic range, but is not otherwise very sharply distinct from the rest of the work Posada produced for Vanegas Arroyo. It is, for exmaple, predominantly urban in its setting, when a location can be specified. Gretton, 1994

Life in the countryside was represented largely via images of religious observance, and of the violent imposition of, and resistance to, the State's authority. In some images it is only the clothing which permits the suggestion of a rural rather than an urban setting. Elsewhere in Posada's work it is perfectly clear that white trousers and shirt, sombreros and sandals was the costume also of a large proportion of city dwellers, perhaps particularly of the most recent immigrants, so that such images may be as much abut relations between different urban groups as between the city and the country. Significantly, ther eis no idealisation of the countryide: Posada's audience was not interested in arcadian myths, or in the village as the focus of certainty, security and community. Gretton, 1994

There is very little in the way of overt hostility to the Mexican elite; little, indeed, of any sort of iconography of that elite. One member of the bourgeoisie, however, is systematically ridiculed. Don Chepito Marihuano (roughly, Sir Joey Pothead), undersized, thin, bald and haplessly horny, forms the focus for a series of comic songs, which see him beaten up for courting someone else's wife, tossed by a bull, or repappropriated to be a generic bourgeois wimp, bullied by a huge drunken campesino. It is, surely, because he is insecurely a mamber of the cultural elite, and still seeks to participate in non-elite forms of cultural activity, that Don Chepito can be mocked: the securely welathy and well-behaved have a relatively neutral existence in Posada's work. The imagery of Don Chepito functions to bar the bourgeoisie from participation in the behaviours o the urban unrulyness and disreputability; it suggests that momvemt across a cultural divide is not merely tansgressional, it is self-devaluing. Gretton, 1994

The State is most insistenty represented in images of repression, particularly of the firing squad. The majority of the execution images seem to be derived more or less directly from Manet's The Execution of Emperor Maximilian: another example of Posada's integration of high-art sources into a culture in ways which evoke the violence of acculturating forces. The State is an agent of retribution, matter-of-fact, unceremonious. It is an institution with the will and the power to enforce its edicts, but there is no representation of the moral authority of the law. Gretton, 1994

The other way in which the State makes its presence felt in Posada's later work is in the prominence given to political turmoil and revolutionary movements. It is not clear that this imagery should be read as being on the side of the Madero Revolution, or of Zapata's uprising, but it does show quite clearly that the fate of the state wasnot a matter of indifferenc to Vanegas Arroyo's customers. The images also make it possible to argue that what distinguished his customers' attitude to the violence which began in 1910 from that to previous endemic armed conflict was that it was seen as a struggle for control of the state, rather than against its own control, and thus a sign of their incorporation, as people, into the drama of the Nation. Gretton, 1994



Roberto Bardecia and Stanley Appelbaum have established a thematic hierarchy: Calaveras; disasters; national events; religion and miracles; Don Chepito Marihuano; chapbook covers; chapbook illustrations; everyday life; miscellaneous prints Stavans, 1990.


Posada's calavera imagery emerged from his celebration of the Day of the Dead. In the most traditional, constrained sense, a calavera is a decorated skull used in Dia de Muertos. Posada pioneered the expansion of the calavera to refer to a particular genre. He created performances of skeletons dressed up, riding bicycles and doing other actions.

National events

El Porfiriato


Gretton, 1994
Gretton, Thomas. 1994. Posada and the 'Popular': Commodities and Social Constructs in Mexico before the Revolution. Oxford Art Journal, Vol 17, No 2 (1994), pp 32 - 47.

Gretton, 1992
Gretton, Thomas. 1992. Posada's Prints as Photomechanical Artefacts. Print Quarterly, Vol 9, No 4 (December 1992), pp 335 - 356.

Stavans, 1990
Stavans, Ilan. 1990. José Guadalupe Posada, Lampooner. The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol 16 (Summer, 1990), pp 54 - 71.

Great piece

This began as an assignment in Art 8 (History of Mexican and Chicano Art), taught by Professor Taylor at Pasadena City College. Thank you to my classmates Wendy Ambriz, Cassandra Buendia and Michelle.