La Calavera Catrina
La Calavera Catrina ('Dapper Skeleton', 'Elegant Skull') is a 1910–1913 zinc etching by famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. The image depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau en attende is related to French and European styles of the early 20th century. She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era. She in particular has become an icon of the Mexican Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Originally called La Calavera Garbancera, the etching was created sometime between 1910 and 1913 by José Guadalupe Posada as a broadside. The work's fame however comes from its appearance in the first posthumous edition, which was published from the original plates in 1930 by Frances Toor, Blas Vanegas Arroyo and Pablo O'Higgins, entitled Mongrafia: Las Obras de José Guadalupe Posada, Grabador Mexicano. Calavera Catrina (Dapper Skeleton)1. This image can be found on plate 21 of Posada's Popular Mexican Prints. Isabel is a popular name for the dead.
The image made from zinc etching captures the famous calaveras or skull/skeleton image that had become popular at the turn of the 20th century. The original leaflet describes a person who was ashamed of his Indian origins and dressed imitating the French style while wearing lots of makeup to make his skin look whiter.2 This description also ties to the original name garbancera, which became a nickname given to people of indigenous ancestry who imitated European style and denied their own cultural heritage.3
"La Catrina has become the referential image of Death in Mexico, it is common to see her embodied as part of the celebrations of Day of the Dead throughout the country; she has become a motive for the creation of handcrafts made from clay or other materials, her representations may vary, as well as the hat."3 – J.G. Posada
While the original work by Posada introduced the character, the popularity of La Calavera Catrina as well as her name is derived from a work by artist Diego Rivera in his 1948 work Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda).
Rivera's mural measures 15 meters long and it stood at the end of Alameda Park. The mural survived the 1985 earthquake, which destroyed the hotel, and was later moved across the street to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, built after the earthquake for that purpose.4
Rivera depicts a culmination of 400 years of Mexico's major figures, which include himself, Posada, and his wife Frida Kahlo. Rivera took inspiration from the original etching and gave Calavera a body as well as more of an identity in her elegant outfit as she is poised between himself and Posada. The intent seemed to be to show the tradition of welcoming and comfort the Mexicans have with death and especially the identity of a lady of death, harking back to the heritage of the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl. As explained by curator David de la Torre from the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Catrina has come to symbolize not only El Día de los Muertos and the Mexican willingness to laugh at death itself, but originally Catrina was an elegant or well-dressed woman, so it refers to rich people4, de la Torre said. "Death brings this neutralizing force; everyone is equal in the end. Sometimes people have to be reminded."
The culture of La Calavera Catrina's has ties to political satire and is also a well-kept tradition as the original was inspired by the polarizing reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz, whose accomplishments in modernizing and bringing financial stability to Mexico pale against his government's repression, corruption, extravagance and obsession with all things European. Concentration of fantastic wealth in the hands of the privileged few brewed discontent in the hearts of the suffering many, leading to the 1910 rebellion that toppled Diaz in 1911 and became the Mexican Revolution.4
She also symbolizes the contrasts between the upper and lower classes for times were cruel. The social classes were extremely segmented and the highest class was the most fortunate and enjoyed many privileges; to the contrary, the lower classes were nearly invisible. To explain and rescue the folklore of worshiping the dead, while showing this off to high society, José Guadalupe Posada made caricatures of Death, one of these drawings being the famous calavera with an elegant hat, though only representing the head and bust with a sophisticated and skeletal essence.3
Links to Mesoamerica
The calavera's ties to the past heritage of the Aztecs can be seen in various ways. The indigenous culture of skulls and the death-goddess Mictecacihuatl is common in pre-Columbian art. Lady of the Dead, Mictecacihuatl, was keeper of the bones in the underworld, and she presided over the ancient month long Aztec festivals honoring the dead. With Christian beliefs superimposed on the ancient rituals, those celebrations have evolved into today's Day of the Dead.4
As for the Spanish heritage (the death-orientation of the monastic orders, dance of death and memento mori traditions), it blended with the average Mexican's stoic, but far from humorless, view of death.1 It should be noted that some find La Catrina to have closer ties to the Dance of Death than to the possible origins of the calavera in the art of ancient Mesoamerica. La Catrina differs markedly from the rigid sobriety of skulls carved by the Aztec or images of decomposing corpses depicted by the ancient Maya. In prints and various other art forms associated with the Day of the Dead—everything from papier-mâché to papel picado (perforated paper) to sugar and chocolate—images of the calavera are unmistakably humorous. The skeletons, often dressed in finery, move playfully and smile widely. In some ways, these animated figures are much closer visually to the European Dance of Death motif in which limber skeletons lead, lure, or drag unwitting mortals to their ends.5
Though these interpretations seem to ignore the full relationship that the Mexicans have with death, as well as the macabre humor which ties to the cycle or life, death and ceremony that the Aztecs had, it should be understood that few countries pay homage to death the way Mexico does; offerings, songs, respect and humor are all common Mexican expressions towards death.6 The European ties are there both for comic effect as well as depicting the symbolic shell that Europe cloaked Mesoamerica in, but the native bones still lie within.
La Calavera Catrina’s today can be found in their more traditional form both in drawn works as well as sculptures made out of Oaxacan wood carvings, papier-mâché sculptures, majolica pottery and black clay. She is also coupled with male skeletons.
Works such as the screen print Sun Mad by Ester Hernández show the influence of Posada's earlier vision. The same might be said of the cover for Los Lobos' album La pistola y el corazón which depicts an inspired Catrina in a couple's embrace.