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6 / Death

La Calavera de la Catrina
La Calavera de la Catrina
Artist / Origin José Guadalupe Posada (Mexican, 1852–1913)
Date 1913
Material Zinc etching
Dimensions H: 12 in. (30.5 cm.), W: 16 in. (40.7 cm.)
Location Private Collection
Credit Courtesy of Giraudon/ Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Stanley BrandesProfessor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

La Calavera de la Catrina

» José Guadalupe Posada (Mexican, 1852–1913)

expert perspective

Stanley Brandes Stanley Brandes Professor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

The Day of the Dead iconography mocks death. The female dandy with the big floppy hat with feathers in it is an icon that I think is very closely associated with the Day of the Dead and has traveled all over western world and Latin America. This animated skeleton figure, which we find in the Day of the Dead, also was found in European traditions as far back as the fifteenth century and going well into the nineteenth century when Day of the Dead books were still being produced all throughout Europe. The big difference between the Day of the Dead skeletons and the Dance of Death imagery is that in the Dance of Death we have actual human beings, live human beings, talking to and communicating with the skeleton which represents death, whereas in Day of the Dead, the skeletons are actually alive so it really symbolizes something else. It symbolizes the animated life of the individual after death; that after death there is still animation. And I think it does represent the kind of prolongation of life into the afterlife. And it is a way of satirizing our activities here on earth as well. They are always very humorous.

The satire associated with Day of the Dead iconography is a kind of what I would call peaceful protest. It is a way of getting around official sanctions and expressing hostile feelings towards public officials, particularly politicians. This grew out José Guadalupe Posada’s original satirical skulls and skeletons, the calaveras tradition. He began his work just at the time when freedom of the press in Mexico had come into being. And he used these skulls, skeleton figures and other forms of cartoonish figures as a social commentary. It wasn’t really until the twenties and thirties and forties even, when Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, David Siqueiros—the great muralists—took up the tradition of Posada and really made him an important and famous figure, much more so than he ever was in his own life. They celebrated his work and used it in their own art and through that his art became associated with the country of Mexico and became itself a national symbol. But they also were using this kind of iconography, particularly Diego Rivera, to point up social differences, in the case of the Catrina, or the female dandy, to mock the bourgeoisie.” 

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