Under the skin

A year ago we received from Víctor Infantes, as a precious New Year’s gift, an ancient Goose Game by the Guasp printing house. And today we present to our readers a Fox and the Geese Game.

We have immediately caught sight of the coyote that runs while looking back 180 degrees, according to the traditional iconography that we have described in our article Canis reversus. On the iconology of the running dog” and then we have further extended to other animals in our posts Vulpecula reversa and “Rhinocerology, or the power of images”. Now we also add the coyote to this biodiversity. However, the appearance of a traditional formula of historical iconography in this popular game should not surprise us, as it is the work of the great Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada (who, incidentally, also designed some great Goose Games).

In fact, we have found this game board while reviewing the work of Posada and admiring the close relationship between this and the photographs of the Casasola brothers about which we have just written. Both offer to us an insight into a complicated world, full of contradictions, the world of Mexico from the rule of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution.

“Eleuterio Martínez killing his sister.” Zincography

It is true that while the pictures of the Casasola brothers bear witness to a world unwilling to intervene in it and with the only intention of representing it (if this is possible at all), José Guadalupe Posada seems to challenge us with a critical, and occasionally sarcastic vision. But in the reality the accounts of his drawings are just as faithful to the facts as those photos. Perhaps their only difference was in the respective audiences targeted by them. In fact, Posada’s work was called by one of his critics “the journalism of the poor”.

José Guadalupe Posada was also an illustrator of daily events and many of his works let us see the details of Mexican daily life: “in the kitchen, women dressed in aprons are busy preparing food; the coal burning on a brick stove elicites pleasant aromas from the earthenware pots; a young woman is grinding spices while the cook is polishing the turkey and in the background a barrel and a jug of rich pulque is revealed…” (“Posada, profesional de la imagen”, in Posada. El grabador mexicano, Sevilla: RM, 2006, 89). These scenes appear in the background of many of his works, even in his illustrations of children’s stories (which remind the stories by Saturnino Calleja working precisely at the same time in Spain).

José Guadalupe Posada was a worker of the press who begin to make a living in the years in the Mexico of Porfirio Diaz, characterized by political instability and by a beginning economic development. But he was much more than that. He was an eminent late nineteenth-century graphic artist, the master of all the great Mexican artists of the first third of the twentieth century, who defined such a powerful aesthetic which is still dominating all Mexico. He worked until his death on 20 January 1913, at the age of sixty, in great poverty.

The contemporary graphic artists followed above all the French art in search of models. Posada turned to the earlier Mexican tradition and used it en masse, from pre-Columbian references to the advertising posters of the taverns and pulque houses. Late nineteenth-century Mexican artists would have never thought that one could lay the foundations of a future art with these scraps. The revolutionary Mexico, however, was suddenly in need of a strong self-definition which in a way could justify the closure of the borders and the end of the cosmopolitanism that had marked the creators of the previous years. And there was the immense work of José Guadalupe Posada on which a new, unmistakable aesthetics could be found, which nowadays  seems to have always been the soul and essence of the people of Mexico.

“Murder by the Chalequero.” Zincography

All these images accompany stories of gruesome events presented in a sensational way. They would merit to be published in an anthology. Of course, the murders of women were one of their favorite topic. The meaningful subtitle of the Gaceta callejera is almost a declaration of principles: “This leaflet is published as sensational events require it.”

In a way, the press photo of the Casasola brothers put an end to the work of Posada, and together with it also to a centuries old tradition. But while this was happening, Posada himself was smart enough to take advantage of the new photographs for his own representations.

It is interesting to compare these images with the photos which in those years entirely occupy the place of the illustrators in the press: for example the military scenes with the portraits of the protagonists of the Revolution, or this soldadera and her companions, already drawn as types with fixed characteristics.

We can also trace a continuity between other phenomena of the Revolution and of contemporary Mexico. For example, the romances or corridos that began to gain an exceptional popularity in the years of the Revolution and often illustrated by Posada – for example the following ones on the Tigre de Santa Julia or on Valentín Mancera – creating their own popular heroes and anti-heroes – are obvious antecedents of today’s narcocorridos of which we will talk soon.

Posada soon abandoned the comfort of the bourgeois press to ally with the publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, devoted to popular – and even vulgar – literature. But it is worth to observe how much his images keep being rooted in the tradition of high culture.

The dragons of the seven deadly sins tormenting the “envious rich man” can be compared with
the swords that serve the same purpose in the Jesuit Sebastián
Izquierdo’s 17th-century purgatory

“The Jew. Modern collection of songs for the year of 189…, 1st part.” Zincography

“The locomotive. Modern collection of songs for the year of 1895, part 27.” Zincography

Almanac of Father Cobos, 1905

This does not mean that we can consider Posada a devoted adherent of revolutionary principles. He was an obscure and enigmatic personality as to his true ideology or religious beliefs. In fact, his topics of devotion are very abundant, but always representing the typical and deeply anticlerical Mexican religiosity mixed with traditional beliefs. The places where Posada published, even though declaring themselves being “in favor of the working class”, were in many ways conservative, with little serious political analysis, and rather focusing on sensationalism and caricature. But that’s where he developed his concise and expressive style, which always overflows with a certain bitterness regardless of the actual event represented. Posada was capable of using themes and motifs from the traditional Mexico, the popular New Spanish press (of which in 2005 a major exhibition was organized in Mexico City: La estampa popular novohispana), and also the images of the new, nineteenth-century Mexico.

“The party of 41 fags.” Zincography. Here we see the beginnings of a metamorphosis of the Mexican society into hardly disguised skeletons

But the most peculiar feature of his work are these skulls. Skulls and skeletons and more skulls and more skeletons. They are the prevalent images of José Guadalupe Posada, when in fact this part of his production is less than two percent of the total. In this aspect, José Guadalupe Posada is the last great representative of a literary and graphic tradition of more than five hundred years. “Posada’s engravings are transformed into a parade of characters from the most grotesque to the most intimate ones: natural phenomena, drunkards, water carriers and other vendors, soldaderas, vendors in the flea market, the Indian carriers of Xochimilco and Santa Anita, politicians, criminals, circus acrobats, tightrope walkers, peasants on horseback, policemen and soldiers. He sometimes also transforms them into skeletons, and then the parade of life also transforms itself into a danse macabre.” (Montserrat Galí Boadella, “José Guadalupe Posada. Tradición y modernidad en imágenes”, in Posada. El grabador mexicano, Sevilla: RM, 2006, 55). Besides the danse macabre, here we must also recall the pictures that other strange Mexican book by Fray Joaquín Bolaños, La portentosa vida de la muerte, published by the Licenciado Don Joseph de Jáuregui in 1792. With these skulls and bones, Posada picked one more despised element of the earlier tradition and put it a highlighted part of his art, thus creating the aesthetics which is today felt as par excellence Mexican.

In the skeletons of José Guadalupe Posada the whole Mexico is seen sub specie cadaveris

“The prevailing misery.” Zincography

Los Narcos de Tijuana: “La Muertera”. From the CD Levantando el vuelo

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