A legendary figure in Mexican art at the turn of the twentieth century, José Guadalupe Posada was inarguably his country’s most influential printmaker, with a body of work numbering at least sixteen hundred printed images. Some claim he made as many as twenty thousand prints during his career, a number difficult to ascertain because of his many followers. Most of his prints took the form of relief engravings printed for mass distribution as broadsheets, posters, and cartoons, among other popular formats.
Posada apprenticed in a lithography workshop while still in his teens and soon was running his own commercial shop in León de los Aldamas, Guanajuato. After selling this establishment and moving to Mexico City in 1888, he joined the shop of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, where he worked until his death. Arroyo was a master of the popular “penny” print, distributing broadsheets to the working classes, including Posada’s ejemplos (examples), works drawn from sensational news items and published as a means of improving the morals of the people.
During the tumultuous years leading up to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Posada relentlessly commented on the leading political and social issues of his day, satirizing everyone and anything. The most recurrent theme in his prints, the calavera (skull), was probably invented by his contemporary Manuel Manilla, but Posada popularized it as a national icon. This symbol, commemorating Mexico’s celebration of the Day of the Dead, became for Posada a sentimental and ironic character embodying the repressed urges of society and reflecting his preoccupation with mortality. Often depicting popular characters like Don Quixote, Posada’s calaveras were accompanied by popular ballads (corridos) describing their exploits.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Harper Montgomery, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 124.