Posad's Mexico is a land adorned with death.
Our Halloween is kids stuff -- our gremlins are cute -- but in Posada's Mexico, fathers eat their murdered sons, skeletons wave bloody swords and all the hanged men twitch. Here we hand out candy. In Posada's art, terror is the treat.
Jose Guadalupe Posada was a dark-skinned Indian, poor perhaps illiterate, square-headed and squat. He was born in Aguascalientes on Feb. 2, 1852. Before his death in 1913, he taught and scared his people with more than 15,000 prints.
He was the Goya of his country, perhaps the Daumier. He sold his etchings cheaply; most were crudely, quickly printed on brightly colored paper, then peddled for a penny by hawkers on the street. His searing picture influenced his nation's finest modern artists -- Crozco and Rivera. No murals by those masters are more political or popular than Posada's prints.
"Posada's Mexico," an exhibition honoring the artist and his time, goes on public view today at the Library of Congress.Its timing is appropriate. oTommorrow is the day all Mexico observes as the Day of the Dead.
Most French ar is about art; most of England's is polite. Spanish art, in contrast, seems dark and sad and morbid. In Mexico -- a land where Aztecs dined on corpes, where the sun is hot and bright -- that morbidity brought in from Spain seems magnified and energized. Posada's corpses seem to dance, his death's-heads grin, his skeletons attack the eye with a savage glee.
Though his "readers" were sometimes illiterate, Posada was a journalist, and a master of the grabber. His penny handbills often bore verses, texts and headlines -- "Very Interesting News of the Four Murders Committed in the Town of San Jose Iturbide by the Unfortunate Antonio Sanchez, Who After the Horrible Crime Devoured the Remains of His Only Son," or "Mexico City is Sinking, Terrible News," "A Pig With a Man's Face" -- but one does not need to read the words. Posada's pictures tell it all.
Sometimes, but not always, his prints are a bit calmer, "Hojas Religiosas," his devotional images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the saints, are often almost quiet. But when his subject is "The Lonesome Soul," he cannot resist portraying her as a naked maiden, her slender wrists in manacles, and her body licked by hell's black flames.
He is often hard on clerics, and on politicians. Francisco Maldero, the timid politican who helped spark the Mexican Revolution, appears as a mustachioed skeleton holding, in his bony hand, a bottle of mescal. Posada is kinder to Zapata and Pancho Villa, and more sympathetic still when, working from a photograph, he shows the corpse of a young farmer the soldiers have just hanged.
An accurate and moving history of Mexico between the 1880s and the revolution is apparent in this show. It was funded, in part, by the Swann Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon, and it has been dedicated to the late Jean Charlot, the French painter most responsible for rediscovery of Posada.
Many Latin poor still suffer, politicians are still pompous, and the face of grinning death still vists us in dreams. In image and in spirit, Posada's art has not aged. It is perhaps belittling to describe him as a folk artist; to call him a surrealist is a bit pretentious. Posada was a printmaker who entertained, who loved his land, who served his people well.
The Posada exhibition, which is blighted by unneeded "audio-visuals" whose droning recorded voices make the viewer want to scream, closes Dec. 31.