Art Review Archives:
June 1, 2002. 96 pages,
Viva Posada! is not so much a book about Mexican artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, as a Festschrift honoring a still vital pulse in Posada's legacy; one particularly strong among Surrealist artists and writers. Octavio Paz called the revolutions which encircled Posada's Mexico: "...a prodigious fiesta in which the Mexican, drunk with own self, is aware at last, in a mortal embrace, of his fellow Mexican." (Paz is quoted in this book.) Posada's images reach far beyond the tumultuous Mexico of his time. Viva Posada! offers testimony.
Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913) pursued a Mexican popular art in woodcut and zinc engraving. (He was the first to introduce the latter process (in 1895) to Mexican printmaking, and he came to favor it. Chicago artist, Carlos Cortez, in his introduction, explains that the artist draws on zinc with acid-resistant ink; acid removes the surrounding matrix, and a printing plate results.) Posada was a tireless worker: his output has been estimated by some to number over 20,000 items. He set up his studio in Mexico City in 1890, and proceeded to create "cigarbox covers, handbills, signs, posters, a map of the city of Leon, matchbook covers, portraits, caricatures, stamps, diplomas, sheet music, calling cards, games, religious images, and advertisements of all kinds." That work made a strong impression later on the Mexican muralists -- artists such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) -- who as students absorbed Posada's popular imagery; his solidarity with the poor and oppressed; his bond with Mexico's past and his fight for Mexico's future. (Orozco and Rivera are excerpted in Viva Posada!.)
Posada's art has been a wellspring for many subsequent artists, Surrealists prominent among them. Posada offers pain and fury, wit, laughter, love; all with immediate effect. Above all, there is his distrust of facile hopes, doctrinaire prescriptions... assumed authority.
Viva Posada! is a Festschrift. But it does not assume every reader knows Posada's work. Chicago artist and poet, Carlos Cortez, edited Viva Posada! and he includes a thoughtful evaluation of the artist, as well as a Posada chronology. Further orientation is offered by the inclusion of three prints by Manuel Manilla, who preceded Posada at the publishing house of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. Three additional prints by Cortez supplement the selections. These as well testify to a vital tradition, a common bloodline. Accessible imagery and a deep commitment to a shared humanity course through all.
Viva Posada! offers an excellent selection of prints. One finds Posada's Battle of the Twenty-Centavo Victory, as well as his portrait of The Hypnotist. Battle of the Twenty-Centavo Victory exemplifies a whimsy akin to Edward Lear, a la Mexicano. In the former, the Mexican coin, as spry stick-figure, resists and skewers an invading Yankee currency. The Hypnotist strongly harkens to English Victorian illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, best known for his classic illustrations to Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books. The Hypnotist theme is elaborated in Posada's Electrical Calavera (Mesmerist). (Mesmerism was an earlier synonym for hypnotism.) Posada shows a deft hand for succinct characterization, but, more importantly, the artist retained a solid scepticism toward enthusiasms which surrendered human nature to messianic politics or technologies. Posada realized and often asserted in his art what revolutionary, Che Guevara, later stated as a maxim -- he who thinks he is safe, is dead. At times, Posada's awareness of such continuing struggles for life, expressed in a rough-hewn, utterly honest idiom, approach a classical dignity. His type-cut, The Troops Attack, reveals a folk classicism in composition and gesture. It was from acts and real consequence that formal art first distilled its formulas. Posada's woodcuts and metal engravings cut to the basic bones.
Calaveras -- animated skeletons. This convention, so common in Posada's art, bridges the emblems of ancient Aztec Mexico, and later Christian iconography: Memento Mori; "Remember man that dust thou art..."; the Dance of Death; a reminder of mortality, a symbol that death does not end it all. Through his Calaveras, Posada struck the universal from the topical.
Posada's images were always topical: Events sharpened his invention, his passions. Each year of his adult life, history repeated itself; only names seemed to change. Posada's sight remains fresh. The Oaxaca Calavera startles, and delights. After the Juarez administration, in 1861, suspended payment of foreign debt for two years, Napoleon III of France sent Austrian archduke Maximilian von Habsburg to Mexico as a would-be king. Maximilian's Marshal Francois Achille Bazaine confronted Mexican general, Porfirio Diaz, in Oaxaca City (1864). Guerilla resistance eventually drove the French out of Mexico, but Oaxaca fell in February 1865, and only after a fierce six-month siege and horrible casualties. Posada was then fourteen. He later cut the The Oaxaca Calavera in remembrance, but it has served numerous reprints after. (The Oxford History of Mexico reproduces this image with a ballad, "Calaveras del Monton" (Calaveras of the Assembled, 1910)).
Viva Posada! is contemporary response, although one wishes for a bit more documentation of Posada images and their background. That history is itself surreal. Porfirio Diaz, seizing power from the French occupation, himself aroused strong opposition, even among intellectuals, for futilely trying to reform the country through cientificos (scientists). One, Alfonso Caso, declared: "The community which tyrannizes over man forgets that men are persons, not biological units." Amateur politician, Francisco Madero, whom Diaz had allowed a few token votes in the 1910 election, joined with the bandit, Pancho Villa (Doroteo Arango), and the peasant leader, Emiliano Zapata. They forced Diaz into Parisian exile the next year. Posada met the events with Calavera of Madero. Posada mistrusted even innocence. He wasn't wrong: Reality turned ever more surreal. General Victoriano Huerta seized control from the popular, but ineffectual and preeminently trustful Madero. And, despite a pledge to allow exile, Huerta had Madero taken out and shot. The press of Vanegas Arroyo did respond. It published The Ravenous Calavera, a rapacious image, half-spider, half-man, sometimes misattributed to Posada, but in fact executed by Manuel Manilla, a fellow printmaker at Vanegas Arroyo's press. Viva Posada!, here, sets the attribution straight. In doing so, it clarifies an art which collaborates with human lives and hopes.
That art is neither forgotten nor obscure, and it has many partisans. Diego Rivera noted:
Viva Posada! performs a service. It offers the reader a document, an echo of achievement which might have faded into obscurity, but which has grown into a living legacy. Notable reputations, practicing artists and writers today, all take strength and hope from Posada's art, and add their own voices. But first -- foremost -- one has Posada's images.
"I don't care so much what the papers write about me -- my constituents can't read; but, damn it, they can see pictures!" Thus Boss Tweed -- heading a corrupt New York City government ring in that same period -- complained about American editorial cartoonist, Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Herein lies a very concrete truth: Mere words are bound by language and expediency; Art has power, past words and time.
Viva Posada! is just now released. It contains an introduction by Carlos Cortez and a chronology of Jose Guadalupe Posada. This volume gathers together testimonies of the living and the dead... writers and artists. In Chicago, one can find this issue at Chicago Rare Book Center, 56 West Maple, Chicago, Illinois 60610 (Telephone: 312/ 988-7246). It can also be ordered from the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company (address above). Viva Posada! includes a useful bibliography.
Viva Posada! presents excerpts from writings by Arsacio Vanegas Arroyo, Anita Brenner, Andre Breton, Paul Carroll, Jean Charlot, Fernando Gamboa. Edouard Jaguer, Frida Kahlo, Jose Clemente Orozco, Octavio Paz, Diego Rivera, Alberto Hijar Seraano, and Peter Wilson. It supplements these with original appreciations by Gale Ahrens, Jennifer Bean, Jen Besemer, Max Blechman, Dennis Brutus, Ronnie Burk, Janina Ciezadlo, Laura Corsiglia, Rikki Ducornet, J. Allen Fees, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Paul and Geth Garon, Robert Green, Diedra Harris-Kelley, Jan Hathaway, Joseph Jablonski, Ted Joans, Robin Kelley, Don LaCross, Katherine Rook Lieber, Michael Lowy, Tristan Meinecke, Casandra Stark Mele, Anne Olson, Ruth Oppenheim-Rothschild, G. Jurek Polanski, Myrna Bell Rochester, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, Penelope Rosemont, Mark Rosenzweig, John Ross, Ron Sakolsky, Tamara L. Smith, Jordan K. West, and Joel Williams.
The Elmhurst Art Museum issued a catalogue of Carlos Cortez's work, Bold Images (1998). Two other books by Carlos Cortez are also available from Charles H. Kerr Publishing: Crystal-Gazing the Amber Fluid (1992), and Where Are the Voices? (1997). He has also illustrated Warren Lemming's play, Cold Chicago: A Haymarket Fable (2002). Artist and writer, Carlos Cortez, was reviewed earlier in www.artscope.net ("Last Stand of the Millennium", Dec. 1999).
--G. Jurek Polanski
Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. Diego Rivera is quoted from Artists On Art (Pantheon Books:1972), edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves. Boss Tweed is quoted from Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures (Chelsea House:1980). This is reprint of the 1904 edition, with a new introduction by Morton Keller. Mexico: A History in Art (Double Day:1968) concentrates on the history as it relates to Mexican art. The Oxford History of Mexico (Oxford University Press:2000), edited by Michael C. Meyer and William H. Beezley supplies a historical background to Posada's times, and reproduces the Oaxaca Calavera in full with accompanying ballad, "Calaveras del Monton" (Calaveras of the Assembled, 1910). Of further interest is Posada's Popular Mexican Prints by Robert Berdecio (Dover:1972); and Jose Gaudalupe Posada: Mexican Popular Prints (Shambhala Publications:1993), edited and designed by Julian Rothenstein.