José Guadalupe Posada: A symbol of the Day of the Dead


Jose Guadalupe Posada was one of Mexico’s most important artists in the 19th century.  In one of the print shops of Antonio Venegas Arroyo, in Mexico City, Posada created hundreds of works of art that represented public life with a dramatic and ironic sense of reality. 

Jose Guadalupe Posada

In Posada’s cultural world violence, informality, and the strange were a part of a visual language that captured and at the same time criticized everyday events in society.  But, where did this extreme vision of reality come from?

For writer Carlos Fuentes, Posada’s originality comes from his intent to mix the diverse cultural traditions of that time.  In Posada’s work there’s a mixture of reason with superstition, the modern with traditional, the formal with informal, life with death.  The combination of these apparently opposite elements generates a type of art that is easy to interpret for people of different social groups and cultures.  During the last years of Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship and in the beginning of the Revolution, Posada’s art served as a social integration bridge for indigenous people and farm workers new to the city.  At the same time, his work was a critical reflection of an aristocratic society in decadence.


Diaz’s time of dictatorship (1876-1911) was marked by extreme richness and also profound poverty.  The regime’s official culture tried to promote science and reason as the ideals of social and economic improvement.  However, hundreds of Mexicans stayed at the margin of the modernization movement.  The poor, on their part, continued developing survival strategies adapting to the improvement ideals of the high society but transforming them for their own benefits.  This adaptation and change strategy makes the reality of aristocracy transform into a popular parody.  In this sense, Posada’s work tries to reproduce the feelings of the majority of the people.


Jose Guadalupe Posada worked in various lithography workshops in Aguascalientes and Guanajuato until he moved to Mexico City in 1889.  In Mexico, he first worked for the La Patria Ilustrada newspaper, of Irineo Paz.  A year later, Posada worked in the printing press of Antonio Venegas Arroyo.  Both began to publish the daily news on “volantes” or flyer sheets.  The traditional “volantes,” presented current news in a scandalous way to provoke fear and horror in some of their readers, and to offer funny morals to stories to others.  The criticism of Porfirio Diaz’s on various occasions caused Venegas Arroyo and Posada to be incarcerated.  Years later, the flyer sheets included songs and stories of the revolution.  The success of the flyer sheets began with the use of “Calaveras,” verses and drawings about life but in terms of death.  Through the “Calaveras” Posada accomplished to capture the popular Mexican sensibility, which interprets daily life, politics, and natural catastrophes from perspectives that mix religious faith with superstition.  The value that Posada gave to these types of popular thoughts doubted the effectiveness of the official culture based on science and progress.

Over time, Posada’s art has come to be a part of the symbols of Day of the Dead.  The famous skull “La Catrina” is probably the image that is most associated with festivities of the dead.  For Diego Rivera, who considered Posada one of his greatest teachers, “La Catrina,” dressed with an elegant hat and adorned with a beautiful feathered boa (Quetzalcoatl), combines the two most influential cultures that are significant in the Dia de los Muertos celebration: the European and Indigenous.  As a tribute to his teacher, Diego Rivera placed “La Catrina” in the center of his mural, “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central,” with Posada to the right and himself as a child, on the left side of death.

The most famous works of Posada are those that have something to do with death.  For Posada, death is an intermediate point where the apparent contradictions that coexist in Mexican society are combined.  Whether they are rich or poor, creole or indigenous, judges or thieves, no one escapes death!  Death is real, the popular Mexican culture seen by Posada shows us that death doesn’t have to be tragic.  Posada makes his various elements of the popular tradition to show death as a companion: sometimes she is our friend and sometimes she betrays us.

‘Calavera Oaxaqueña’, (c.1903). Relief etching. Source: Library of Congress

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