Skeletons dance, drink and revolt in type-metal engravings by José Guadalupe Posada at Davidson Galleries.
Skeleton dancers, a skeleton cigar smoker, a skeleton guitarist and even a skeleton Eiffel Tower!
The gleefully bone-jangling figures in the work of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) may be dead — but they couldn’t be more animated.
Davidson Galleries, in a Halloween-compatible exhibit, is highlighting the work of Posada and his collaborator Manuel Alfonso Manilla (1830-1895) in a show titled “Calaveras (Skeletons) & Broadsides.”
José Guadalupe Posada with Manuel Manilla: ‘Calaveras (Skeletons) & Broadsides’
10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Oct. 31, Davidson Galleries, 313 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle (206-624-7684 or davidsongalleries.com)
Some of Posada’s choice images — unfailingly cheerful skeletons depicted in an array of poses and activities — are served up in contemporary restrikes of archival type-metal engravings. The rest of the show consists of preserved broadsides and newspaper front pages from more than a century ago.
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The restrikes suggest that skeleton life goes on in much the same way ours does. Two young skeletons court each other. Others show off a new bonnet (“La Calavera Catrina”), play music (“Calavera Con Guitarra”) or start riots (“Las Revueltas Calaveras”). One rides the tail of a skeleton devil (“La Calavera Infernal”) while another, more innocently, goes shopping with a skeleton baby strapped to its back.
Posada reportedly created thousands of engravings for more than 50 Mexico City periodicals over the course of his career. They ranged from political cartoons to social satire to news bulletins.
“Gran Calavera Electrica,” for instance, celebrates the extension of a Mexico City trolley-car line. A gigantic skeleton, looming over a plaza of smaller skulls and skeletons, regales his audience with the news, while in the background a trolley car full of enthusiastic skeleton passengers waits to depart.
In rough translation, the illustration’s caption reads: “On the first of November, like racing devils they will run — the electric carriages that will arrive in Dolores” (a street in Mexico City’s Chinatown). Below it is a lengthy poem holding forth on this new transit development. The broadside is included in the Library of Congress, where the online catalog explains that the text reflects “the fascination with the modern wonder of electricity as used in Mexico City’s trolleys.” All the broadside texts in the Davidson show are in verse.
Other broadsides portray skeletons at work (including a painter, a carpenter and a tailor), skeletons enjoying tavern dances and skeletons triggering various kinds of civic and sexual mayhem.
Perhaps the most irreverent concerns a “tasty skeleton barbecue” in a cemetery where a funeral is going on. One female skeleton, handkerchief to her face, seems to be crying her eye-sockets out. The rest are in full party mode, gulping down drinks and feasting on comestibles.
Posada won a posthumous following in the 1920s and 1930s. Artist Diego Rivera even “quoted” Posada’s “La Calavera Catrina” in his mural, “A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” where Catrina’s elegantly dressed skeleton (there’s no mistaking that hat!) stands with a group of smartly dressed Mexico City park strollers, all still very much in the flesh, with Rivera’s wife, artist Frida Kahlo, among them.
It’s clear from the Davidson show why Posada’s antic Day of the Dead energy would have enduring popular appeal. It would really help the show, however, if translations of the textual elements in the broadsides were offered.