It’s not every day that a museum displays a news story perfect for the National Enquirer. In one of the penny prints at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM), a headline proclaims in bold letters “¡Caso raro! Una mujer que dio a luz tres niños y cuatro animales.” It translates to “Strange case! A Woman who Gave Birth to Three Children and Four Animals.” According to the article, a woman died in childbirth after delivering three human babies and four prehistoric creatures, who died shortly afterward.
Accompanying the sensational story is an illustration by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. A woman dressed in dark clothing lies on a table as the babies lie beside one another. The reptilian-looking animals are on the ground looking up at their mother and siblings while two men stare at the strange phenomenon with shocked expressions. In another print Posada illustrates a knife-wielding woman who kills her parents. Nearby is an image of a child “without a skull” who is said to resemble a monkey. The works were created more than 100 years ago, but BAM Chief Curator Benedict Heywood is certain audiences will appreciate the images in the spirit in which they were originally intended — sensationalism and excitement.
“I think for me what’s great about it is it shows, you know, we’re all the same,” said Heywood. “We imagine that we’re not, that we’re kind of different or more advanced or etc., etc., etc., from someone who lived in Mexico City in 1882. We’re not. We’re exactly the same.”
Posada didn’t just lend his talents to bringing bizarre stories to life in street literature. He also illustrated historical events, daily life and chapbooks — a small book of recipes, stories or songs. The exhibition “José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Penny Press” shows the range of his work and its evolution. Heywood said the single-page penny prints weren’t designed to be kept, but the fact that many of the originals were saved is a testament to the strength of Posada’s imagery.
“It’s so visceral and immediate and confrontational in the best kind of way, and it plays to the material,” said Heywood. “You pay your penny and you get to read about things that are exciting and interesting.”
Posada is well known for his Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) broadsides, which are similar to posters, that featured calaveras (skeletons). In “Calavera de la prensa,” which translates to “Calavera of the Press,” Posada depicts his publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo in his print shop. Arroyo, wearing shades and a bowler hat, sports a long beard and is stuffing a 1,000 peso note in his pocket.
Illustrations from his colleague Manuel Manilla are also incorporated in the show. Manilla initially began using calaveras in the broadsides. The images we see today are reminiscent to what Manilla and Posada created.
Posada was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in 1852. He trained and worked as a lithographer before relocating to Mexico City in 1888, where he established a workshop. Posada is widely considered to be the father of modern Mexican art. He died in 1913, during the beginning years of the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920). Post-revolution muralists drew inspiration from Posada. In recognition of his influence, BAM painted large-scale skeletons on the walls to accompany the prints.
The exhibition also includes the evolution of one of his images. “La calavera de los camiones” (“The Calavera of the Trucks”) shows a tall skeleton standing in front of dozens of skulls and a trolley in the back of the frame. In 1921, after Posada’s death, the image appears again in a broadside with an adjustment. Part of the image has been replaced with a Ku Klux Klansman, who is holding a burning cross in one hand and a black flag in the other. At the time the KKK was a growing hate group in the United States, garnering national and international attention.
“The text refers to an event, as yet unidentified, involving an action of Klansmen and their deaths in Mexico,” an info panel reads at BAM. “It also both praises and condemns the organization.”
Unlike other artists, whose works adorn the walls of museums and galleries, the Mexican artist’s story is not set in stone. Heywood said there’s still more to uncover about Posada’s working practice. For instance, his method for producing images is left to deduction rather than handwritten notes by the artist or some other written record.
“I think one of the key art historical messages from analysis of this material is that the innovations in terms of printing and the speed of printing which had come from Europe to Mexico City in the late 19th century,” said Heywood, “allowed for the first time to have a high volume of paper news, ephemera stories, images to be produced every day, and that was something new in Mexico City — something new in Mexico.”
From illustrating a tale of cannibalism to revolutionary figure Emiliano Zapata, Posada produced iconic images. It’s easy to understand why the masses were attracted to his work, which was sometimes printed on brightly colored paper. The exhibition is a fascinating trip back in time and well worth the journey.
WHAT: “José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Penny Press”
WHEN: Runs until Aug. 19
WHERE: Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE
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