Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: La Calavera de la Catrina
Intended as social satire, José Guadalupe Posada’s calaveras (images of skulls or animated skeletons) commented on the social and political lives of Mexicans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although originally conceived by Posada’s contemporary Manuel Manilla, the calavera was popularized by Posada, whose cartoons circulated widely in newspapers, street gazettes, broadsides, and commercial posters. Perhaps the most famous of Posada’s calaveras is La Calavera de la Catrina, the skeleton of a high-society lady wearing a large, fancy hat. This figure, in particular, has become an icon of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Like the American practice of Halloween, the Day of the Dead is related to the Catholic celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. Every year in early November, Mexican families gather to celebrate the souls of the dead. Overnight vigils are staged in cemeteries, where offerings of water, food, and flowers are left for the deceased. Home altars are also decorated and supplied with food and other objects meant to please the lost relative or loved one. But these more somber, religious rituals are just one side of the Day of the Dead. In secular spaces, the living enjoy festivities that include music, performance, and gift-giving. Colorful costumes and whimsical art featuring representations of calaveras are prominent in these celebrations.
Despite a widespread tendency to see the origins of the calaverain the art of ancient Mesoamerica, it differs markedly from the rigid sobriety of skulls carved by the Aztec or images of decomposing corpses depicted by the ancient Maya. In prints and various other art forms associated with the Day of the Dead—everything from papier-mâché to papel picado (perforated paper) to sugar and chocolate—images of the calavera are unmistakably humorous. The skeletons, often dressed in finery, move playfully and smile widely. In some ways, these animated figures are much closer visually to the European “Dance of Death” motif in which limber skeletons lead, lure, or drag unwitting mortals to their ends.
Like Day of the Dead imagery, Dance of Death scenes demonstrate that death will come to everyone—young and old, rich and poor. There is, however, a very significant divergence in these two iconographic traditions. The encounters in Dance of Death illustrations are between the living and the dead, who seem to mock their human targets. In Posada’s prints, no one lives; everyone is a skeleton. Nevertheless, the human experience full of joy, passion, tumult, and fallibility goes on. Death is the subject of mockery here. In similar fashion, the ephemeral nature of Day of the Dead art, whether it be a fragile piece of paper or a sugary candy, acts not as a warning of death’s inevitability so much as a reminder to enjoy the sweetness of life.
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.”
Brandes, Stanley. Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Maden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.
Brandes, Stanley. “Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the Dead: Origins and Meaning.” Ethnohistory 45.2 (Spring 1998): 181–218.
Carmichael, E., and C. Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Frank, P. Posada’s Broadsheets: Mexican Popular Imagery, 1890–1910. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
Milotes, D. José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Broadside. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, bilingual ed., 2006.
Stavans, Ilan. “José Guadalupe Posada, Lampooner.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 16 (Summer 1990): 55–71.