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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  1. hace un tiempo en que estaba en uno de los hostales en aguascalientes alojado recuerdo a ver visto este tipo de pintuas y figuras


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