Duncan Tonatiuh, Funny Bones. Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras
Published 2015 by Abrams Books, 40p
José Guadalupe Posada was born in 1852 in Mexico in a poor family; his older brother helped him with his education and encouraged him to enroll at the local art academy. As a teenager Lupe began to work in a print shop where he learned lithography and engraving. His career began with some drawings for a small newspaper but his irony and mockery offended the local politicians so Lupe moved to the nearby city of Léon. There he opened a small shop and continued to create illustrations until a catastrophic flood hit the city. He moved to Mexico City, met Antonio Vanegas and worked together for more than twenty years.
Posada died in poverty and it was posthumously when people discovered and valued his art. A witness of all the changes in Mexico, Don Lupe captured everything in his drawings. A political and cultural critique he used his illustrations to send messages. And the most appreciated form of all his communication channels were his calaveras – the skeletons performing all sorts of activities.
Skeletons riding bicycles… skeletons wearing fancy hats… skeletons dancing and strumming on guitars. We call these festive bony figures calaveras. In Spanish, the word calavera [ca-la-VEH-rah] means “skul”. A lot of things that are associated with skulls and with el Dia de Muertos – the Day of the Dead – are called calaveras. For example, there are calavera drawings, candy Calaveras, calavera poems, and calavera toys. The skeleton figures are not scary – in fact, they look as if they’re having fun.
Tonatiuh beautifully introduces Posada’s art by creating a subtle link between historical periods. What would Posada’s Calaveras look like nowadays? he wonders.
Mainly serene, festive and entertaining, the calaveras drawn during the Mexican Revolution became aggressive, depicting a period of fear and death.
Even powerful leaders one day become calaveras
Nowadays calaveras remain mostly associated with el Dia de Muertos, a holiday in Mexico in 1-2 November, a cultural heritage that has its origins in Pre-Columbian times when people remember the deceased ones. It is a day when mortality is approached with music and joy and when people question about death but life as well. The skeletons become a symbol of the fragility of life and remind people of their ephemerality. People go to the cemeteries to be with the souls of the dead, pray, tell jokes and build altars with ofrandas.
One of Posada’s most famous calaveras, La Calavera Catrina/ The Elegant Skull, a parody of the Mexican upper-class female remained up-to-date and has modern representations during the Day of the Dead.
It is fascinating how Tonatiuh managed to mix traditions, to link present with the past, to give considerable biographical information , to explain artistic processes and in the same time to raise questions on art, life and death.
Complement your reading on Mexican artists with a beautiful picture book on Frida Kahlo.