This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of José Guadalupe Posada, one of the most celebrated and influential artists of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Whether or not you recognize the name, the work of Posada, born in Aguascalientes, central Mexico in 1852, has become culturally ingrained internationally, owing to his unique and unmistakable fingerprint. A full century since his passing is a remarkable milestone, considering just how much the pre-modern artist continues to shape art, design, politics, and spirit. This rings particularly true near the upcoming celebration of life and remembrance, Día de los Muertos, more commonly known as the Day of the Dead.
Though Posada’s body of work comprises thousands of illustrations, acid etchings, engravings, and cartoons, even casual observers will recognize the work for which he’s most well-known: his Calaveras or skeletons, the most famous being Calavera de la Catrina (The Skull of the Female Dandy). It is this motif of skeletons and skulls as the subjects of his developing art practice that helped transform Posada from a simple illustrator to an icon, and helped transform Día de los Muertos from a morbid practice of mourning to a celebration of life. He did this by infusing his Calaveras with immutable spirit.
“One of the things about the Calavera is that we have one inside of us,” Jim Nikas, a Posada researcher told Complex. Nikas and his wife, Maryanne Brady, have amassed the largest collection of Posada’s works in the U.S. “There’s no getting around it. There’s one inside each of us. So when you remove the clothing and the skin you get the same structure of bones beneath them. It becomes a universal symbol. That’s one of the reasons the Day of the Dead has gained so much popularity because the imagery is so universal.”
The imagery of the Día de los Muertos was far from new, even when Posada began culling the Calaveras for his own use in the late 1800s—the artist Manuel Manilla also utilized this imagery around this time. And Mexican folk artists have, since pre-Columbian times, been evoking various forms of the imagery we’ve come to recognize in sugar skulls and colorful altars and the paper-cut artworks of the papel picado. We see it everywhere from tattoos to hot rods to dinnerware.
But instead of using the Calaveras as a tool to aggrandize death, Posada’s etchings, drawings, and lithographs brought an immense level of energy to a topic that could have been staid or depressing. He inflated the exuberance of his Calaveras to create imagery that urged people to move past the petty grievances of every day life, by celebrating it.
“He created a body of work that has survived to this day and has influenced millions of people,” Nikas said. “And not just the Calaveras, but in that case, the iconic images are really mostly Posada because he injected so much life from his energy and his genius and his talent into each piece.”
By the time Posada was married and had a son, he moved his family to Mexico City to pursue more financial stability. Ironically, it’s likely that what made Posada so wildly popular in the end was resigning his fine-art aspirations in order to make a living—he began doing illustration work with newspapers. Though in Posada’s early years he worked with many different publishers and printers, it was his collaboration with the publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo that would help spread his joyful, vivid Calaveras into a broader market and a larger cultural consciousness.
Even contemporary artists have a hard time understating the impact Posada had on design, and the institution of critique.
“His using those traditional roots to design illustrations of current events in a new creative style to help sell his newspapers,” David Lozeau, an artist who often utilizes Day of the Dead motifs, told Complex, “gave the current modern day Catrina her look along with skeletons engaged in all sorts of activities. His work is the most commonly used, redrawn, and re-interpreted—even more than Frida Kahlo or any other artist in that genre.”
“His work connected with current events and current politics,” Susan Matthews, an Oakland-based artist and teacher with a deep background in Latin art and culture, told Complex. “And his compositions were so great. You can have a great idea for satire, but his sense of composition here was what made you look at his wit and his conviction and sense of humor.”
There was a stripped-down essence to the celebration of the life-and-death cycle here—the grinning skulls often looked downright jolly. As a result, Posada was able to appropriate the recognizable symbols of his own culture to meet the needs of his social critique.
“The combination of topical, political events, and the craftsmanship with content, you can’t really separate those things out,” Matthews commented. “They all come into one piece. He’s like an alchemist—there’s no beginning and end to the piece.”
By the time Posada died in 1913, he was quite unknown—his work was not celebrated other than in the commercial sense. But as more and more artists discovered his work—coming down the line in a rapturous essay by Diego Rivera, tacked to the walls of Frida Kahlo, referenced directly by José Clemente Orozco, appearing in the filmic work of Sergei Eisenstein, and snowballing into the tangential influence of thousands of others—his influence just cannot be ignored.
Posada outlived his son and wife, he was buried in an unmarked grave, and his remains are still not officially accounted for. But his work, living in celebration of his centurial death, will live on for the foreseeable future—a theme that resonates throughout his motifs. We can certainly raise a glass to the life of Posada during this year’s Day of the Dead.