Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Review: Posada el Novio de la Muerte

A Fair Trade Book

Book Title: Posada: el Novio de la Muerte
        
Author: Eduardo del Río (Rius)
        
Date: 2003
        
Publisher: Grijalbo
       
ISBN: 970-05-0721-1
        
Length: 94 pages
        
Illustrations: black-and-white prints, mostly by the subject, some by the author and others
        
Quote: “A través de la obra de (José Guadalupe) Posada puede realizarse el análisis más completo de la vida social del pueblo de México.”
        
That was what the legendary painter Diego Rivera said about an obscure cartoonist of the previous generation, much of whose work had already faded out of existence. In this little book, Rius, the contemporary cartoonist who gave the word “macho” its current meaning in English, pays tribute to his long-gone master with a selection of Posada’s wonderfully grotesque cartoons and engravings, offered with only a half-dozen or so comments from Rius’s own characters.

(Fair disclosure: Both Rius and Rivera were extreme left-wingers even by Mexican standards. Rius has written sympathetically about Marxism and less sympathetically about the United States; his web site is censored by some browsers in the U.S., which is why I can't post a link above, but there's one on the Wikipedia page about him. Posada is a biography in cartoons that shouldn't offend anyone much, but right-wingers won't like most of Rius' books. If you don't want to support a living writer with whom you disagree, you might want to check the Wikipedia page...I do not have a problem with sending $2.50 to a writer with whom I disagree.)
        
Perhaps only in Mexico would an art history book be printed as a cheap black-and-white paperback. Blurry, Xerox-like reproductions of  cartoons that were mostly engraved, rather than drawn, can hardly do justice to the books from which the cartoons were taken. Text is often included in the illustrations (Posada illustrated several books of popular songs) and far too often the text is illegible. Apparently this presentation is in keeping with the way Posada’s work was published during his lifetime—he drew a lot of cards and labels of which nobody even tried to save a copy. It seems incongruous, though, with Rius’s assertion that Posada was a real artist who, if he didn’t found a “school” of art, at least inspired a genre of cartoons.
        
I say “cartoons” because that’s the genre of art, in my time and place, that includes this kind of images. Most of them are not, however, the pen-and-ink scribbles “cartoons” implies. In Posada’s time, drawings and paintings couldn’t be photocopied; in order to publish illustrations an artist had to engrave images on a hard surface that could be covered with ink and stamped on paper. (Lettering, if used, had to be done in reverse.) Several processes were devised to make commercial artists’ job easier. Nothing made it as easy as it is today. Posada worked in printing shops and experimented with various engraving and printing techniques. The pictures that look most like modern cartoons, Rius explains, were actually produced by a process called “zincography.” 
        
Rius calls Posada “Death’s boyfriend” because, although Posada was willing to draw anything, he was best known for cartoons in which the likenesses of living people were anonymized into images of skulls and skeletons.  Skeletons model the fashions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; they kneel at their significant others’ feet, they head for a fishing hole with a bottle of beer, they race bicycles, they work on jobs, they play guitars, and they appear in every rank of every contemporary armed force.
        
Readers in the U.S. may be turned off by the guitar-playing, beer-drinking, and hat-modelling skeletons on the cover of this book. We have to remember that Mexican Catholic culture had used skulls and skeletons to remind people to behave well (with Final Judgment in mind), even shaping sugar skeletons as party treats for children. Posada’s audience were conditioned to feel less uncomfortable looking at skulls than many of us are. Nevertheless, the drawings are clear and stylish, realistic without becoming calendar art; their surrealism can’t be completely lost on anyone who likes Dali or Chagall.
        
Posada could draw living faces, too, even good-looking ones. He did “holy cards” with images of saints, flattering drawings of celebrities, and attractive models, as well as sensational news items, political cartoons (for whichever side was paying), and his calaveras or skeletons as cartoon characters. His grotesque and comic images seem to have been the ones recognized as original and memorable, after most of the pretty pictures of saints and young couples had been thrown away.
        
Not much is known about Posada, and the available facts of his life are rather pathetic. José Guadalupe Posada had three older brothers whose first names were also José; big brother José Cirilo attended a “real” school, briefly, and then shared his primary-school education with little José Guadalupe. “Lupito” was born in 1852 and died of acute enteritis in 1913. Although Rivera and Rius, as left-wingers, liked those of Posada’s cartoons that seemed to sympathize with “the struggle of the workers,” both had to admit that Posada had no political education—not much education of any kind—and sold his talent to anyone willing to pay for it. There seems to be no suspicion that Posada wrote any of the words that appear beside his pictures. He knew how to read, and did some attractive lettering, but he was an artist not an author.
        
He was, however, an artist “100% mexicano.” That would have been enough to cause either Rivera or Rius, patriots both (although left-wingers), to write favorably about Posada, so it’s a pleasure to report that patriotism is not the only reason why people still collect and reprint Posada’s work. There’s still a fresh quality about his images, whether they’re Art Deco angels tucking toddlers into bed, portraits, “holy cards,” bullfights, hangings, or skeletons drinking at bars.
        
If you like cartoons, and are not nervous or depressive, you will enjoy this introduction to a cartoonist who was very different from anyone in the U.S. or the U.K., in his time or in ours. (Amazon amusingly identifies the cheaper edition with the skeleton guitarist on the cover as "the Spanish edition." There is no English edition. Rius writes in Mexican Spanish, although he's not averse to quoting things written in different languages. Since most of his books are, like Posada, mostly pictures, any second-year student with access to a dictionary should be able to read them.)

Because it's not been published in the U.S., Posada sells for collectors' prices. I'm afraid the best price I can offer would be US$20 for the book plus $5 for shipping. (Shipping costs can be combined if different items can be packed and shipped together.) And "pos yes!"--out of this Rius or his favorite charity (I'm not sure I want to know) get $2.50. 

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