FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. Today we honor the culture of Día de los Muertos with a print from master Mexican graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada. This artwork is currently not on display, so we hope you enjoy this exclusive virtiual viewing.
The artwork of José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913) has become synonymous with Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead). Born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Posada learned the arts of lithography and engraving in his early teens. Scathing satire defined his cartoons and graphic depictions from the start, and before his twentieth birthday, Posada was hired as the political cartoonist for the local paper El Jicote (The bumblebee). His success, however, was short-lived when the paper folded after publishing only eleven issues, reportedly because Posada’s cartoons had offended a powerful local politician.
Posada is best known for his calaveras (or skulls). Although today the concept of the calavera is visual, its origins derive from the written word. During the nineteenth century, Mexican newspapers often published a humorous poem or mocking epitaph, known as a calavera, dedicated to a public figure and accompanied by a cartoon.
During the reign of Porfirio Díaz, Posada used these skeletal cartoons to satirize the ruling classes. Perhaps Posada’s most famous calavera is that of an upper class Mexican woman known as La Catrina; her image in particular has come to embody the contemporary Día de los Muertos.
The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated on November 1 and November 2 to commemorate the dead. Its roots can be traced back to pre-Hispanic indigenous festivals honoring the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, and it also coincides with the Catholic holidays All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Communities gather to remember and pray for friends and family members who have passed on. These celebratory gatherings include the construction of elaborate altars, onto which offerings (or ofrendas) of the deceased's favorite food, marigold flowers, pictures or other cherished belongings are placed. These ofrendas are intended to entice the dead to stay close, so that they will be available to intercede on behalf of the living. Calaveras have become the most recognizable symbol of this holiday and are ubiquitous—they are made into masks and puppets, painted onto faces and even depicted in foodstuffs, such as the ever-popular sugar skull.