Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, January 8, 2003

Exhibit celebrates José Posada’s 150th birthday


Long before Diego Rivera began painting murals on the walls of public buildings, a medium he viewed as less elitist than the gallery canvas, the popular illustrations of José Guadalupe Posada were speaking directly to the working poor.

The graphic artist embellished thousands of penny broadsheets, magazines, cheap novels, chapbooks, commercial advertisements and corridos, ballads celebrating the likes of bullfighters, Revolutionary heroes and larger-than-life bandits.

To mark Posada's 150th birthday, an exhibition of his work and that of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Workshop for Popular Graphic Arts), which took its creative inspiration largely from Posada, is on view in the Peterson Gallery of Green Library through March 15. Curated by D. Vanessa Kam and Adán Griego of Stanford University Libraries, the exhibition is free and open to the public.

For close to five years, Stanford University Libraries has been developing a research collection on Posada and the Taller de Gráfica Popular. It has amassed close to 1,400 prints and several important monographs. The exhibit features a large sampling of this material, including prints, printing blocks, broadsheets, posters, photographs and rare illustrated books.

Born in 1852 in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, Posada lived most of his life in pre-Revolutionary Mexico. When he was 16, he became an apprentice at a lithography shop, where he produced cartoons about local politics. The sharp-witted satire and vitriol exhibited in these prints drew the ire of some powerful men in the region, forcing Posada and his boss, José Trinidad Pedroza, to pack up and leave.

In 1872, they set up shop in the city of Léon, in the state of Guanajuato, where Posada produced illustrations for magazines, books and commercial items. He also taught lithography at a local secondary school and started a family. But the defining moment of his career came in 1888, when he relocated to Mexico City. There Posada began illustrating popular broadsheets -- so-called hojas volantes, or "flying leaves" -- published by the businessman Antonio Vanegas Arroyo.

In his autobiography, Rivera credits Posada as one of his principal influences. While the praise is undoubtedly sincere, the two men held markedly different ambitions. Posada considered himself an expert technician and draftsman -- blue collar to the bone -- not a member of the fine-arts coterie. His audience was the urban and rural poor.

Yet both artists shared a strong populist streak. And though Posada's calaveras depicted the idiosyncrasies of both rich and poor, the butt of his jokes were more often white-collar professionals, government officials and the middle and upper classes.


Posada may be best known for his drawings of calaveras, skeletal caricatures associated primarily with Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. (They are ubiquitous all year round in his work.) Yet more than half of the thousands of drawings he produced for Vanegas Arroyo's broadsheets deal with crime, particularly bloody and macabre violence committed in moments of passion, as well as natural disasters and freaks of nature.

This broadsheet "news" was often laced with a kind of wry, dark humor. One unctuously warns of the dangers of the Francophile fad of bicycle riding that was then sweeping Mexico's Europeanized upper classes. The print, depicting a man riding a bicycle while fearful pedestrians scramble to get out of the way, recalls Stanford's White Plaza at lunchtime.

Comic relief, in any form, is almost completely lacking in the work of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP). Nevertheless, the TGP understood the democratic vigor of the print form and considered Posada one of its social, political and spiritual mentors.

Founded in 1937 by members of a dissolved artists' collective called the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists), the TGP was bound together by an allegiance to the agrarian and social reform goals of the Mexican Revolution. Through the printmaking medium, it aimed its rallying cry of social and political justice at the poor working classes. Many of the prints were political propaganda in its purest form. One poster, titled "Help to Prevent This Crime," depicts Ethel and Julius Rosenberg strapped to electric chairs while a devilishly clawed hand (wearing a cuff link with a dollar sign) is prevented from pulling a lever by what is presumably the symbolic hand of working-class outrage.

TGP founder Leopoldo Méndez's homage to Posada, who was as likely to draw a gaggle of partying skeletons as dispossessed and impoverished members of the working class, is too saturated with earnestness to truly reflect the man. This linoleum-cut image shows Posada, paunchy and ponderous, sitting at a desk and watching through a window as government troops attack unarmed civilians.

Yet both Posada and the TGP shared a desire for social justice. The lament of a cartoonish lawyer by Posada may best capture the spirit of this common cause: "If I had only been an honorable artisan, earning my living with the sweat of my brow!"

Images Courtesy of Stanford University Libraries