American's aren't terribly comfortable with the concept of aging or death. Wealthy women pump chemicals into their faces in attempts to preserve the dewy skin of youth, but the practice backfires more often than not, lending these unhappy, deluded souls the look of well preserved corpses laid out for burial. Old people are encouraged to live in ghettos called "retirement communities", where the only people required to deal with them are paid care givers, and each other.
Americans do, however, enjoy the pageantry of death. We celebrate Halloween, that ancient rite of death and rebirth and harvest. We love horror movies full of bloody corpses and basic cable is full of shows that consist mainly of men with recording devices shouting "Are you there?" and freaking themselves out, hoping and fearing that an actual ghost will appear. We're pretty good at talking about tragedy. But dealing with death as a part of life and the idea that all of us are one day going to shake off this mortal coil, well, that's pretty much unAmerican. We like optimism.
Our neighbors to the south celebrate death with great and storied pageantry. Día de los Muertos celebrates those one has loved and lost to the aether, one prays and eats and celebrates. It is a fitting holiday for the world's most popular death cult, Catholicism. It is this holiday that Mexican illustrator and artist, José Guadalupe Posada, is most deeply associated. His images of skeletons are justly iconic, but they really were a tiny fragment of his work. Born in 1852, he spent the bulk of his working life in Mexico City, drawing political broadsides and illustrating an amazing array of chapbooks. Interestingly, his drawings of skeletons weren't really intended to celebrate Día de los Muertos at all. The iconic La Calavera Catrina (the skinny lady in the hat pictured above) was drawn to mock the rich, saying that no matter how lovely and expensive your clothes, you too, will one day be dust and ashes like the rest of us.
A few years ago, I was smart enough to pick up a copy of Posada: Illustrator of Chapbooks. In it, are dozens of his penny chapbook illustrations. It's remarkable that so many have survived as they were considered to be pretty much disposable at the time of their publication, and the quality of the paper is terrible. Luckily, the company that produced them kept excellent archives which were lovingly cared for by the owner's descendants. Also, Posada was a wonderful artist and people aren't completely stupid. Many people held on to them. Like any jobbing illustrator, he drew many, many subjects, but they are all identifiable as his work.
I love fine art, but in some ways the applied arts: illustration, cartooning, graphic design, fashion tell us more about the texture of times past then anything else. This was the stuff that people looked at every day, what they had in their homes, and what they saw on the streets on their way to work. These were the images that lived in people's heads.
Posada died, like many illustrators of the past century, penniless and nearly forgotten. Unsurprisingly, Diego Rivera was one of the people who called attention his work long after Posada's death. His satirical edge, which is palpable in all his work, even in his illustrations for children's stories, fits in so well with the modern sensibility. Unlike with many contemporaries in England and America whose work seems cloying or dated, his does not. Posada is more akin to near contemporary, Thomas Nast, whose work was even more overtly political, but was protected by the First Amendment, a luxury Posada did not possess.
It was Mondo and his final runway collection wearing its Day of the Dead and Mexican folk art influences on its sleeve that made me want to revisit Posada. Art talks to each other, and it talks to us. Give Posada a look.