La Calavera de la Catrina

Catrina 1

Materials:  Wire, papier mache, lace, feathers, paint
Dimension:  18 centimeters high
Place acquired:  Tourist shop, Merida, Mexico
Place of manufacture:  Mexico


The Mexican artist and printmaker José Posada died penniless in 1913. But in the last decades of his life he had created a whole new genre of political imagemaking that featured skeletons. They were bitingly satirical cartoons that parodied the privilege and corruption of the mexican ruling class of the time. Portrayed as skeletons with all the weaknesses of living humans, these images were produced just prior to the turbulent period of the Mexican Revolution. The most famous of his creations was La Calvera Catarina, a ‘high-society’ skeleton lady dressed in a large fashionable feathered hat. ‘Even the wealthy elite must die, and become a thing of the past’  it seemed to be saying.

If Posada could see today how popular and ubiquitous his image of Catarina has become in Mexico he might think that the battle had been won, that wealth and corruption was a thing of the past. He would be wrong of course, but that is because these skeleton images of his are now popular for different reasons, and are loaded with much more cultural meaning than just the political satire he was intending. Posada’s skeleton imagery did not come from nowhere, the skeleton has a long history in mexican culture and its symbolism is complex.

The Roman Catholic calendar traditionally celebrates All Souls Day in November, a respectful remembrance of the dead. Its alter ego is the more ghoulish halloween, a european tradition that treats death as a scary grotesque, full of skeletons dancing the living to their deaths. But the Mexican Aztec culture also celebrated a festival to Mictecacihuati, the goddess of the underworld. She presided over the afterlife, lovingly looking after the bones of the dead, and was herself always represented as a skeleton.

A synthesis of these traditions has produced Mexico’s Day of the Dead. It’s a festival that has a unique and complex attitude to death. The halloween ‘dance of death’ tradition is macabre and cautioning – the dead are laughing at the living. But the Day of the Dead is more comfortable with death. It’s more like the living are laughing with the dead. The Mexican festival is a delicate balance between the carnivalesque and a respectful memory of the dead. Posada was tapping in to this Mexican tradition with his social satire. Along the way he created a whole new visual vocabulary that has revitalised Mexico’s festival. This little papier maché figure is a modern celebration of the Day of the Dead, but it just happens to use Catrina, Posada’s lampoon of vanity and wealth, in order to do it.