What do calaveras represent in Mexican art?
Calaveras are the skulls from the funeral tradition of Central America. At first they were conceived as confectionaries to eat during the celebrations of Día de los Muertos, afterwards they evolved into toys, sculptures and masks to carry in procession.
In this part of the world, the experience of death is considered happy and playful since the Aztecs, the death assumes a positive imply because it is the announcer of a better condition, and in the past it was celebrated with voluntary sacrifices in honour of the Earth Goddess and of the Coatlicue life, which is represented in a figurative way with a death mask. To confirm this, the Aztecs temples were enriched with skull-shaped sculptures.
During the last century the calaveras tradition has been influenced by the art of José Guadalupe Posada, considered as the first cartoonist of modern painting, as well as precursor of the artistic stream born during the years of the Mexican Revolution which includes Orozco, Rivera e Siquero between its artists and exponents. Posada’s most famous etchings are indeed related to skulls, those are undressed of their most religious side, in order to wear a new grotesque, satirical, even political image, since they are inspired by the middle-class life and by the dictatorship. The most renown opera is Calavera Catrina, which represents the skeleton of a woman dressed with clothes from the nineteenth-century European aristocracy, and wearing a big hat full of ostrich’s plums on her head, as a critic expression towards those who fervently wish to emulate habits and traditions of the well-off social class. The first appearance of Calavera Catrina on a satirical periodic goes back to 1913.
Beyond the sarcastic look, Posada’s illustrations are often associated to Día de los Muertos, since they are representatives of the typical motifs of the indigenous Mexican culture. Catrina herself (inspired by the Aztec Goddess) is shown during funeral celebrations.
During the first years of the Twentieth century the most significant chapter of the Mexican artistic history is represented by the the Mexican Muralism, an original experience of civil painting and of social inspiration born and raised on the wave of the Zapatista revolt. Being aware of the historic moment lived by their own country, painters with a democratic and neoliberal education such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco become promoters of a kind of art with strong political and social contents, and which speaks to the crowd. The necessity to get in touch with a wider public convince them to favour a mural paint, which they use in public spaces like streets, squares, schools, hospitals, government buildings etc…
It is the minister of education Vasconcelos who places Rivera in the culture program of the government which, after ten years of civil war, is searching for a new form of artistic representation. The mural paint has got the ability to traspose the ideology and humanistic ideals onto walls, and it is seen as an educational tool.
Who was Diego Rivera?
Mexican artist and politician, Rivera was a painter, designer, graphic, sculptor and illustrator. Eclectic and eccentric figure, he was born on the 8th of December 1886 at Guanajuato, he took art lessons at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, and in January 1907 he travelled to Europe. Here Diego studied ancient art (the discovery of Giotto’s frescos gave him the inspiration for the mural painting), and learned and experimented the artistic trends of the current avant-gardes. This experience changed him deeply, so that when he went back to Mexico he wrote: “The way back home caused an aesthetic rejoicing to my senses, impossible to describe. […] It was like I was reborn.” Immediately after Diego’s return, José Vasconcelos included him in the new cultural program of the goverment, which used to see an innovative powerful medium of communication in the mural painting. Diego was one of the most famous and important figure of the Mexican Muralism. Rivera is also known to have married and supported the very talented artist Frida Kahlo, that we can talk about in the next article, in addition to their stormy and unfaithful love story.
I’d like to talk about an artwork related to the calaveras subject, and particularly to Calavera Catrina.
In 1947 the artist gets ready to realise a huge mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”, destinated to the foyer of the luxury Hotel del Prado, in front of the south gate of the Alameda Park, in the city centre of Mexico City. It’s the last big historic mural of Rivera, and also the most autobiographical.
In the central area of the painting the young Diego has his hand held by Calavera Catrina, a parody of vanity created by the famous graphic José Guadalupe Posada, who is portrayed at the right side of Catrina. Posada was one of Diego’s artistic fathers, and his ironic narrative method was an extraordinary example for Rivera. In this work of art Catrina is also an allusion to the Aztec mother earth Coatlicue, often figured as a skull. Next to the young Diego there is Frida, his love, here represented as a mother, and holding the cinese symbol of the Yin and Yang in her hand, the emblem of the pre-Hispanic mythology of the dual spirit. A wonderful allegory of life and death.
Calaveras in European Culture
This is an icon that has become part of our visual language recently, and definitely it does not represent its original meaning. Like many trends and rituals it turned into something else, cleared out of its religious, political and celebratory significance. Calaveras represent for us an ephemeral fashion icon, an Halloween costume, a theme for a trendy tattoo. Few people know the real meaning of this symbol, full of sense and of ancestral and primordial religiosity, as much humanity itself.