VivaFest: Jose Guadalupe Posada

VivaFest exhibition celebrates the work of influential illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada
Jose Guadalupe Posada CALAVERAS BOUNTY: Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada is best known for his calaveras (skulls or skeletons), which are vividly drawn and often politically charged.

Part of VivaFest is a show of the artist Posada at the Mexican Consulate in San Jose, in honor of the centenary of his death. A gringo wrote my favorite description of Posada: the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who first sighted Posada's work in Frida Kahlo's room at the Barbizon-Plaza in New York.

"Thumb- tacked all along the walls of the hotel suite were some very odd engravings printed on the cheapest kind of newsprint," Mitchell wrote.

"'Jose Guadalupe Posada,' Kahlo said, almost reverently. 'Mexican. 1852-1913 They show sensational happenings that took place in Mexico City—in streets and in markets and in churches and in bedrooms. And they were sold on the streets by peddlers for pennies.'"

Mitchell added, "the majority of the engravings were of animated skeletons mimicking living human beings engaged in many kinds of human activities what I found most astonishing about them was that all of them were humorous Old Testament humor, particularly the humor in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Gogolian humor. Brueghelian humor."

The Consulate's show is curated by San Francisco-based husband-and-wife collectors Jim Nikas and Maryanne Brady, who have the largest private collection of the artist's works in the U.S. Nikas is also working on a documentary about Posada titled Art and Revolutions. Nikas is a paleontologist in the oil business who started collecting the artist after meeting Arcasio Vanegas Arroyo, of the third generation of the printing family. "Much of the Posada work that survives today was published by Arcasio's grandfather," Nikas says, "though most of the work Posada did doesn't bear his name. He worked for some 50 newspapers."

The periodicals had names like El Fandango, The Macaw, El Diabolito Rojo. Posada was a journeyman who illustrated whatever was called for.

"The advantage to editors is that he could add details to a photo of the front, as needed. Helia Emma Bonilla Reyna, an art historian in Mexico City, just found evidence of a lawsuit by Posada against someone who didn't pay him. We can see from the papers how he worked, by reading this contract, a description of what was wanted. He was a tremendously talented guy—you told him what he wanted, he'd make it for you," Nikas says.

This show demonstrates Posada's gift for realistic engravings: in honor of Mexican Independence day, the display includes a reverent illustration of Father Hidalgo, draped in bunting for the September holiday. Elsewhere is an unusually tender Posada, of a soldier kissing a woman goodbye, and the original zinc plate of a holy-card sized Virgin of Guadalupe.

The display includes a room full of work by artists influenced by Posada, including Juan R. Fuentes, Lalo Alcaraz and Ester Hernandez, best known for her famous work of protest, the skeleton lady advertising "Sun Mad Raisins." Images of bony mice lampoon the Disneyfication of Mexican culture. Posada's influence is too widely spread in Mexican art to sum up in brief, but Orozco, Kahlo and Rivera (who wrote a long essay of tribute) were fans. And Sergei Eisenstein's film Que Viva Mexico includes an image of Posada's most famous picture, "La Calavera Catrina," a charming if simpering dead lady in a cartwheel hat.

There isn't one single characteristic of Posada's work, but as artist Artemio Rodriguez wrote, "A large part of Posada's work was about crime, the more lurid the better." We don't see much at the Consulate of Posada's illustrations of bloody murder, usually instigated or aided by grinning devils.

The show emphasizes the Posada most know: the antic skeletons. Posada wasn't the first to do them. In the late 1840s, there was a Daumier-influenced journal of political satire in Mexico City called El Calavera, whose mascot was a living skeleton. This predecessor didn't have the vividness of the Posada calaveras. As Nikas says, Posada's skeletons "leap off the page." The antic skeletons, preening, gone a-courting, riding bicycles and strutting their stuff are here: they're overdressed, lampooning the Europeanized fancy-boys and girls in the kleptocratic President Diaz's Mexico City. There's political protest in his image of north of the border "Ku Kus Klanes" on their night ride; witty memento mori, warning that today's swankster is tomorrow's corpse.

As we see in one of the two surviving photos of him, Posada was prosperous enough to have a studio with his name in foot-tall letters outside. But it was hardly a wealthy life. He was widowed, and his son died before him of typhoid. Reportedly, Posada was carried off by a surfeit of tequila during an annual spree; he was buried in what is officially described as a "sixth-class grave" and was evicted even from that. The whereabouts of his bones are unknown for certain. Posada's post-mortem triumph is a tribute to the spirit of his art—he's been dead 100 years and he's still astonishing.

A Centenario Posada exhibition

Mexican Consulate

MON-FRI 10am-3pm


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