Who is the artist behind Mexican skeletons and “La Catrina”?

José Guadalupe Posada’s “La Catrina.” (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

José Guadalupe Posada’s “La Catrina.” (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

Ever wonder who was responsible for “La Catrina” and the skeleton figures which are a part of traditional Mexican culture, and are growing more popular worldwide?

The man behind the famous bony cadavers and skulls is Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada.

As part of the 22nd Annual San José Mexican Heritage and Mariachi Festival, San José’s Mexican Consulate is celebrating Posada’s legacy with “El Centenario Posada 2013.”  The free exhibition, which also features the work of artists from the U.S. and Mexico who have been influenced by Posada’s work, opens September 13 and will last through December 30.  More importantly, it marks the 100-year anniversary of his death.

José Guadalupe Posada (right) with his son (left). (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

José Guadalupe Posada (right) with his son (left). (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

Known as the “printmaker to the Mexican people,” Posada’s thousands of illustrations ranged from political cartoons to religious art that captured the time in which he lived. Posada’s influence can now be seen internationally, especially in the Day of the Dead imagery he popularized after his death, as well as in illustrations for liberation during World War II, Lucha Libre, and the Grateful Dead.

Sadly, Posada died without an awareness of the influence he would have in the modern art world. He died in obscurity and in poverty and left no descendants.

“‘La Catrina’ we think was created in 1912 — the year before he died,” says curator Jim Nikas, who 70 selected works of 2,300 from the New World Prints Collection for the exhibition. “He would be a graphic artist today — somebody available for hire — that’s what he was in those days.”

Nikas explains that most of Posada’s illustrations were published by the Mexico City press of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. As a lithographer, Posada made stone and lead engravings which he sketched first.  He then used a chemical process for his final touch.

“Arroyo could use the printing blocks over and over for different stories that he wanted to write or poems of people they knew who had died,” says Nikas.

Nikas likens Posada to icons like Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.

“The more we look at the work of Posada, we feel the energy of his genius and the collective total of his work gets magnified over time,” he says. “He used the power of the image to change public opinion and to be used in social movements, be it for human rights, or to expose corruption…That’s something that Posada has given to us.”

Nikas and his wife, Maryanne Brady, are also working on a documentary about the artist which is expected to be completed in time for Day of the Dead.

“Skeletons soften the pain of death — people get used to the idea we’re all going into a whole pile of bones and maybe it’s not so terrible after a while,” says Nikas about how he got interested in researching the Mexican artist. “It’s crept into the culture of the U.S. and in Europe.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

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