Sunday, July 20, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 6c: José Guadalupe Posada's satirical 19th Century catrinas and their 21st Century descendants

A classic catrina of the 19th Century. The term catrina is the feminine version of the Spanish word catrin, which means dandy, dude, or toff. The catrina shown above was one of the earliest creations of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), who invented the genre. The figure satirizes the sartorial pretensions of Mexico's wealthy class toward the end of the 19th Century. This period was called the Porfirato, after Porfirio Diaz who ruled Mexico with an iron fist from 1876 until he was overthrown by the 1910 Revolution. The feathered hat represents the newest French style of the time and Posada uses it to depict the fixation by the rich on all things French or European. This catrina, and many more, were on display in Aguascalientes' National Museum of Death when we visited the city.

A catrin struts along, displaying the pride and arrogance of the Porfirato. A stylish sombrero tops the calavera (skull or skeleton). Clenched in its jaws is a huge cigar. The catrin also sports a diamond stickpin in its cravat, a flower in its lapel, and a cane or walking stick similar to those favored by "men of substance." José Guadalupe Posada is one of Aguascalientes' most famous sons. He came from a modest background and learned reading, writing, and drawing from his older brother Cirilo, a teacher at a country school. At the age of 16, Posada went to work for a local printer named Trinidad Pedrozo. From Pedrozo, he learned lithography and engraving.

A stylish couple, out for a walk in the park. In his later years, Posada worked with another illustrator, Manual Manilla, and they shared the catrina theme. Because they worked so closely together, it is sometimes difficult to tell their work apart. However, I believe the cartoon above may be one of Manilla's works. Posada's career as a political cartoonist began in 1871 when he took a job with an Aguascalientes newspaper called El Jicote (The Bumblebee). The young cartoonist's satirical illustrations apparently carried quite a sting because the paper lasted a mere 11 issues. Both Posada and the publisher had to flee the city after someone very powerful took exception to an El Jicote cartoon.

Partying at the cantina. Here, Posada depicts common people engaged in a favorite activity. Two of them dance to the music of a harp played by the calavera on the left. Originating in Vera Cruz, this style of harp is still popular with street musicians. Other skeletal figures watch the dancing couple while one on the right downs the contents of a large pitcher. He may be imbibing pulque, an alcoholic drink made from the heart of the maguey plant. This beverage has been popular among the rural poor since early pre-hispanic times. Although pulque can still be found at roadside stands, in modern times it has largely been supplanted by beer.

Dressed as a hacendado and wearing a broad sombrero, a catrin enjoys a drink. In another of Manilla's illustrations, a hacendado (hacienda owner) raises his glass of fiery tequila, his wife (girlfriend?) peeps over his shoulder. Traditionally, this drink would be followed by a quick suck on a fresh lime and a lick of salt sprinkled on the back of the hand. On the table are a lime and a knife to cut it. Notice the cork on the left side, labeled "Tapatio." This is the nickname for a resident of Guadalajara and was also apparently the name of a brand of Tequila at the time.

Catrinas and violence

A catrin on a rampage. Campesinos flee in all directions as the knife-wielding catrin tramples skulls underfoot. There were quite a number of violent images displayed among the Posada collection. Here, the cartoonist appears to be portraying the dark side of Mexico's wealthy class. After fleeing Aguascalientes, Posada settled in Leon, a city in the neighbouring state of Guanajuato. Apparently his powerful enemy could not reach him there. Rather than cowing him, the initial response to his cartoons appears to have inspired him as an illustrator. Posada took various free-lance jobs in Leon, including more political cartoons but also a lot of commercial illustrations for magazines and book covers. He even began teaching lithography at a local school. Again, disaster intervened, this time from nature. A massive flood inundated Leon, forcing Posada to flee to Mexico City.

Violence was also common among ordinary people in Posada's day. Possibly as the result of a drunken brawl at a cantina, one campesino calavera prepares to slash another with a razor-sharp sickle. The clothing and straw sombreros of the figures are very typical of those worn by the rural poor of Posada's day. After arriving in Mexico City, he set up his own lithography and engraving shop, but also took free-lance work from publishers around the city. The most important of these was Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. Posada forged a long-standing association with Arroyo during which they published huge numbers one-page broadsheets called hojas volantes (flying leaves). These contained stories, high-society gossip, or popular songs and were enlivened by Posada's illustrations. The hojas volantes turned out to be wildly popular. During this period, Posada increasingly used his catrinas to draw attention to the gross social injustices of the Porfirato.

A mounted Mexican lancer tramples other calaveras in a wild charge. Porfirio Diaz had been an officer and hero during both the Reform War of the 1850s and the French occupation that followed it in the 1860s. He rode his popularity to the presidency in 1876. Thereafter, he used the Mexican army to crush revolts, break union strikes, and generally suppress social unrest. Posada's calavera images carried multiple levels of meaning and were very powerful in a largely illiterate society. Even the poorest peon could immediately understand them. The use of skeletal figures was a reminder that everyone is equal in death. Regardless of social position or economic status, no one is spared.

Even in Hell, the calaveras continue to party. As the flames of the hereafter rise among them, the skeletal figures drink, carouse, and even play the base fiddle. Posada, along with his fellow illustrator Manilla, produced tens of thousands of illustrations utilising catrinas. About 2000 of them survive in various collections in Mexico and around the world. Posada's work was not only influential in highlighting the social inequities of his day, but it also had a deep impact on the future of Latin American art.  Mexico's two greatest muralists were Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. In their youth, both visited Posada's shop to watch him work. Both credit him with deeply influencing their art. In one of his greatest paintings, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," Rivera prominently features a catrina in the center of the crowd. Orozco said that his visits to Posada's shop resulted in "my awakening to the existence of the art of painting." Many other artists throughout Latin America were also touched by the cartoonist's genius. In the end, however, Posada died in poverty and obscurity in 1913.

Modern Catrinas

A catrina as a bride, waiting for her groom. This beautifully detailed ceramic figure uses a theme that is fairly common. During a Day of the Dead fiesta a couple of years ago, I visited some of the local, front-yard altars created for the event. One of them contained a "living tableau" where a young woman had made up her face like a skull and wore a bride's gown. The sign she carried that said "Busco novio" (I search for a boyfriend).

Poking fun at the Church.  A bishop in his vestments raises a hand to bless the faithful. The upper hierarchy of the Mexican Catholic Church has been closely associated with the wealthy ruling elite since the earliest colonial times. As an institution, the Church benefited greatly from the exploitation of poor mestizo and indigenous people, and used their forced labor to build some of the great religious edifices. The Church even owned large haciendas where the peones (workers) were whipped for attempting to run away, or even just failing to attend religious services. Consequently, a deep strain of anti-clericalism runs through this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Satirical creations like the one above are one way in which this feeling is expressed.

A bony ballerina twirls on her toes. We found this life-sized figure under the arcade that surrounds all four sides of the central courtyard. She was one of several that were engaged in various activities.

Is this the missing groom? Dressed in his 19th Century finest, this top-hatted figure could have paired up with the bride in the initial photo of this posting. However, they were made by different artists. He is quite a slim and handsome fellow though.

 Woman on a swing. This tableau caught my eye as we walked along the arcade corridor. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered a painting that looked remarkably like this calavera on a swing. I think I found it here.

A touching family scene. Entitled "Calavera Family," this little piece shows a husband, wife, and child seated spoon-fashion with their arms around one another. The fact that they are skeletons doesn't detract from the feeling of affection and togetherness.

Murals of the Death Museum

A soldadera cradles a skull while sitting in a spooky graveyard. Surrounding the second floor of the Museum's atrium there is another arcade. A section of the wall is covered by large murals relating to the theme of death. In the scene above, a young woman sits on one of the raised tombs typical of Mexican graveyards. She is dressed as a soldadera (female soldier of the Revolution) complete with a bullet bandolier across one shoulder. In the crook of her arm, she cradles a turquoise-inlaid skull, similar to those in the Museum's displays from ancient Teotihuacan and the Aztec Empire. She appears to be conversing with it. Behind her stands Coatlicue ("Mother of the gods"). The original of this statue is contained in Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology. It is more than 3 m (10 ft) tall, weighs several tons, and is truly awesome to behold.

At the foot of another tomb sit three cheerful little gremlins. These calaveras have obviously been partying very heartily. While the one on the right stuns his guitar, the gremlin in middle points his pistol at the night sky. The figure on the left laughs as he clutches a bottle.

On another panel, a young woman covers her face in despair. She holds a photograph of a young man, possibly a relative or boyfriend. The photo is spattered with blood, indicating the young man met a violent end. A wrecked, burned-out pick-up truck stands in the background. This scene is certainly suggestive of the more than 60,000 people who have died in Mexico's seemingly endless drug war.

A narcotrafficante sits across from the young woman, watching her with an evil look. Dressed in a black leather suit, his posture is a near-parody of Rodin's famous statue "The Thinker." Behind him a vehicle burns fiercely. Perhaps he is responsible for what happened to the man in the blood-spattered photo. Even though scores of thousands have died in the conflict, it directly touches the foreign community only rarely. Still, Mexicans that we know have lost friends and relatives to this kind of violence. Unfortunately for Mexico, the US has an insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. It also has a bottomless supply of the weapons favored by the cartels. As a Mexican leader once said about a different conflict: "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

This completes Part 6c of my series on Aguascalientes. If you have enjoyed it, you are welcome to leave a comment either by using the Comments section below or by emailing me directly. If it says "no comments" below, it just means no one has left one before you. Click on that and it will take you to the Comments page.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 6b: Laughing at death in Museo de la Muerte

Monsters on parade. How'd you like to answer a knock on your door and find these characters, arm-in-arm and reeking of tequila, asking you "where's the party?" I had to chuckle when I came across this little tableau in Aguascalientes' Museum of Death. There's so much going on with this group that it's hard to know where to look first. The central devil-figure is horrific enough, but why are his hands gripped in the teeth of flaming-eyed critters on either side? For that matter, why are those critters literally crawling with snakes and lizards of various sorts and sizes? There's something so cheery about this group that it's hard to be scared of any of them. A lot of the material in the museum is very funny, which goes to the heart of Mexico's relationship with death. It is a part of life and not something to be unduly feared, but instead appreciated and even mocked.

"OMG!!"  I dubbed this unnamed figure the "Oh, my god!" statue. The expression of astonishment, consternation, and dismay expressed by this skeletal figure can be understood immediately by anyone. While this is a modern creation, similar expressions can be found on clay figures from the Shaft Tomb Culture dating back to 300 BC.

The dead like to party too! Grinning skeletons crowd around an overflowing banquet table. Food, drink, and a festive atmosphere are a part of Mexico's traditional Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) fiesta each November 2. It's hard to be solemn or gloomy when all about you are enjoying themselves so much.

Music and dancing are also part of the scene. This pottery ensemble contains a number of skeleton couples dancing wildly. I could almost hear the mariachi music and the raucous laughter. The sculptor has captured the joyous motion of the dancers perfectly.

A day at the amusement park for the skeleton family's kids. The figures throw their hands out, just as living people do on an exciting amusement park ride. This child's toy functions by turning the crank at the side.

My attention was caught by this large, rather goofy mask. The tongue drapes down while the bugged-out eyes stare in wonder. Above the eyes, the toothy jaws of a grinning skull adorn the forehead.

The skeleton family that moulders together, stays together. This is another vignette where there's a lot going on. The central figure is the father, who clutches a scythe, always Death's hand-tool-of-choice. A baby skeleton hangs against his bare ribs, its arms around his neck. Meanwhile the father keeps a protective hand on the shoulder of a boy who seems about to run off to play. Accompanying the boy is a skeletal dog, looking equally ready for a romp. Another adult figure stands to the left of the father, also holding a scythe. This may or may not be the mother. The figure's head droops, perhaps drunkenly, while its arm is thrown over the father's shoulder. The hand clutches a bottle. The father's face is turned away. Is he expressing disapproval of his drunken companion, or is he hungrily looking at the bottle? You decide.

A Tree of Life inhabited by skeletal musicians. Perhaps these are the guys playing for the dancers seen previously. The instruments appear to be mainly brass and drums. Tree of Life sculptures began appearing shortly after the conquest. They were used to evangelise the indigenous people by telling biblical stories. By the 20th Century, Trees of Life were appearing that bore no relationship to religion. However, this one contains a figure at the bottom center who may be an angel wearing a hat decorated with a cross.

The skull as a medium of art

A ceramic skull is decorated with painted flowers and other designs. As you saw in my last posting, people have been using skulls as decorative mediums since at least the era of Teotihuacan (100 BC - 650 AD) and perhaps even earlier. This is a modern creation, but the elongated skull seems to hark back to the Maya practice of deliberately deforming the skulls of infants to mark them as members of the nobility.

Another flowered skull wears a toothy grin. This pottery skull has been beautifully painted. The sign indicates Patzcuaro as its place of origin. Patzcuaro is famous for its Day of the Dead fiestas.

A surreal example of skull decoration. The colours of this red, green and white pottery creation are those of the Mexican flag. This guy looks like he just won the lottery, or watched his mother-in-law fall headfirst into a mud puddle.

An actual skull, with its eyesight returned. The sculptor has achieved a startling result by taking a real skull and filling in the eye sockets with flesh-toned plaster and wide-open eyes. The eyelashes enhance the effect. I half expected the skull to say something cheery as I went by.

A hooded gremlin protectively hugs a large skull. He seems to be saying "it's mine, all mine!" As you can see from the above examples, humor forms a large part of the Mexican attitude toward death. It seems to me that this is a much healthier frame of mind than the north-of-the-border tendency to look upon it all as depressing.

This concludes Part 6b of my series on Aguascalientes. Next week we'll take a look at José Guadalupe Posada and his famous catrinas. I'll show a number of examples of his 19th and early 20th Century engravings that satirised Mexican society of the time. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If so, feel free to comment either in the Comments section below or by emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 6a: The unique National Museum of Death

Beautifully wrought Aztec Eagle Warrior, depicted as a skeleton in the Museum of Death. Although created by a modern artist, ancient Eagle Warriors would have appreciated the image. The House of Eagles, their headquarters next to the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), was adorned with life-sized skeleton figures. The Eagle Warriors were the most important among the elite warrior cults of the highly-militarized Aztec society. The warrior above wields the fearsome machuahuitl, the basic Aztec hand weapon. It was a long, narrow wooden paddle with grooves along each edge containing razor-sharp obsidian blades. Against any of the Aztecs' pre-hispanic opponents, the machuahuitl was deadly. Against Spanish steel armour, it was relatively ineffective. The statue is displayed in Aguascalientes' Museo Nacional del Muerte. This museum is unique in Mexico in its focus on the complex and interesting way that Mexican culture views death. The Mexican views are radically different from those generally held by folks from "north of the border".

Museo Nacional de la Muerte

The National Museum of Death occupies what was once a 17th Century Convent. The museum opened in 2007 and contains more than 2000 artifacts, ranging from pre-hispanic to modern. Aguascalientes has a long history associated with skulls and skeletons. It is the birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), creator of the famous catrinas, which have become wildly popular and are now found everywhere in Mexico. Catrinas are skeleton figures dressed in various costumes and portrayed in scenes of everyday life. The word comes from the Spanish term catrin, which refers to a dandy who imitates the lifestyles of the wealthy. In addition to Museo Nacional del Muerte's display of Posada's work, there is a separate museum in Aguascalientes devoted expressly to the work of this native son. Unfortunately we did not have time to visit the other museum.

The displays are contained in rooms surrounding this courtyard and its two-story atrium. Some of the walls behind the arched portales are covered with murals which I will show in a later posting. Posada became famous as a political cartoonist who satirically portrayed the affectations of Mexico's 19th Century nouveau riche. To do this, he drew skeletons wearing the latest European styles. Today, you can find catrinas shown as housewives, dentists, motorcyclists, golfers, and endless other  variations. I have even seen a catrina gynecologist examining a skeletal patient.

Death in the Pre-hispanic Era

A Colima Dog, found in a burial site of the Shaft Tomb Culture of Western Mexico. Ceramic dogs often appear in the burials of the Shaft Tomb Culture, especially in the area of Colima, Mexico. The culture gets its name from the unusual burial sites they created between 300 BC - 400 AD. These are found in a geographic area that follows a rough arc from Michoacan, up through Central Jalisco, and down to the coast of Nayarit. Shaft tombs were built with a vertical shaft as much as 20 m (65 ft) deep. At the bottom of the shaft, one or more bulb-like chambers were carved out of the soft volcanic soil. Bodies left in the chambers were sometimes arranged like the spokes of a wheel, with the feet at the hub. Large amounts of grave goods were buried with the bodies, and these are our primary source of information about the culture, since they typically did not build large above-ground structures such as pyramids or palaces. The grave goods often included several of the ceramic dogs, which are called Xoloitzcuintle. The nahuatl word is a reference to Xolotl, a dog-god who guards the dead and accompanies them on their journey through the nine levels of the underworld.

Teotihuacan skull inlaid with turquoise and obsidian. Teotihuacan was the greatest city of Mesoamerica, at least until the heyday of Tenochtitlan almost 1000 years later. The later cultures, including the Aztecs, held the ruins of Teotihuacan in awe, referring to them as the "Place where the gods were born." Between 100 BC and approximately 650 AD, Teotihuacan influence was pervasive in the area stretching between Guatemala and the Southwest United States. Turquoise, considered a sacred material, was mined in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area and traveled over long-distance trade routes to Teotihuacan. The ancient city was a multicultural capital, with neighbourhoods set aside for representatives of various groups, including the Zapotec kingdom of Monte Alban near present-day Oaxaca. The practice of decorating skulls with turquoise thus spread to the Zapotecs, and from them to the Mixtecs. After the Aztecs conquered the Mixtecs, they demanded skulls like this as tribute, and then adopted the practice themselves. While it is not clear what sacred purpose the Teotihuacans had in decorating skulls like this, the Aztecs used them in their worship of Tezcatlipoca, one of the most important gods in their pantheon. He represented (among many things) rulership, war, jaguars, the night sky, and hurricanes.

Tzompantli, or skull rack. These can be found widely in ancient sites, from Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs (north of Mexico City), to Chichen Itza, the great Maya city in northern Yucatan. Great copycats that they were, the Aztecs built a tzompantli next to the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Above you see a stone representation of the actual wooden racks on which hundreds of skulls were impaled on long horizontal poles. The tzompantlis in Tollan and Chichen Itza stand next to ball courts. The Mesoamerican Ball Game is strongly associated with human sacrifice. Aside from whatever religious significance the tzompantlis had, they were clearly intended to display power and achieve intimidation.

Mask of the Three Ages. This complex terracotta work by an Aztec artist portrays the three ages of life: youth, old age, and death/rebirth. Along with most Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztecs viewed the world--and life itself--as a succession of cycles. They believed that death is simply a transition point, a bit like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass. These ancient peoples closely observed nature and saw cyclical patterns in the seasons and in the movements of the heavens. They developed a complex system of mathematics in order to calibrate these changes accurately and thus predict the future. This had practical functions, such as determining the correct dates for planting and harvesting, as well as ritual and mystical purposes. The Maya developed the abstract concept of zero at a time when Europeans were still living in mud huts and wearing bear skins. Their long-count calendar system was so sophisticated that it could accurately specify a particular day millions of years in the past or future.

Zapotec funeral urn. This clay piece was unearthed in San Jose del Mogote, Oaxaca, and is from the late Pre-classic Era (400 BC - 100 AD). The elaborate head dress is typical of Zapotec sculpture. They left tombs in and around their mountaintop capital of Monte Alban that were filled with beautiful sculptures such as this, as well as exquisite jewelry. The Mixtecs, who later took over the area, often re-used the Zapotec tombs for their own burials. There is disagreement among archaeologists about whether the figures represent deities or actual rulers. There is also uncertainty about the function of the urns, since the Zapotecs didn't cremate their dead. Most have been found empty although one was full of bird bones.

Death and Cosmic Duality

Expressions of cosmic duality.  The Mexican culture is strongly influenced by the thousands of years in which sophisticated societies existed here prior to the Spanish arrival. One way in which this is expressed is the concept of duality. According to Ricardo Valenzuela Ruiz, "There is a ceaseless, cyclical oscillation of polar yet complementary opposites. Duality takes the form of an endless opposition of contrary yet mutually interdependent and mutually complementary polarities which divide, alternately dominate, and explain the diversity, movement, and momentary arrangement of the universe." The statues displayed above express this duality in a variety of ways, but primarily through the juxtaposition of life and death.

A partly skeletal baby with Olmec features. The forms in which duality appears are endless, but life and death are very common expressions. The concept of duality is of one of an integrated whole rather than two separate and independent halves. Life cannot exist except in its relation to eventual death. Similarly, the masculine and feminine are two parts of a whole and, when united in the act of sex, may actually create life in the process. The concept of wet cannot be understood without also understanding its duality of dry. The same is true with hot and cold, light and dark, etc. The halves of each duality are interdependent and complementary.

Duality is expressed here as a double-headed figure. Not only does the skull head share a body with the living one, but the living figure is female and the skull half is male, yet another duality. They share the same painted designs on their body, which expresses a unity.  The two halves of the dual figure jointly caress a serpent. Snakes have been very powerful symbols all the way back to the Olmecs, the earliest Mesoamerican civilisation. Snakes are often depicted with two heads in the ancient art, or with a human form emerging from the snake's mouth.

Half human skull, half jaguar, this sculpture is still another expression of duality. Like the snake, the jaguar is another powerful and very pervasive symbolic figure. It is the third largest of all big cats, behind only the African lion and the Indian tiger. The jaguar is a powerful and stealthy hunter that stalks its prey in the night. Its nocturnal behaviour was believed to give it a strong connection with the underworld. In fact, the jaguar was believed to pass freely between the worlds of life and death. It is no wonder that various Mesoamerican royalty and warrior cults wore jaguar masks and skins to emulate this extraordinary creature.

This completes Part 6a of my series on the Museo Nacional del Muerte. I will do two additional postings on the museum. In the next, we'll take a look at the humorous aspects of death, from the Mexican point of view, and see some startling examples of the skull as an object of art. The last museum post will show some of the work of José Guadalupe Posada, the creator of the famous skeleton figures called Catrinas.  I hope you will enjoy this series within my Aguascalientes series. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so either by emailing me directly or by leaving your remarks in the Comments section below.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim