Though José Guadalupe Posada died in January 1913, a month before the murder of Francisco I. Madero, he is recognized today as the first artist of the Revolution. True, he could portray Emiliano Zapata, that quintessential hero, as a common bandit or a ravaging Attila. As editor Ron Tyler notes in his perceptive essay, however, Posada focused his attention on the people, on their “daily lives and the things that affected them” (p. 5). “Both Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco,” says Tyler (curator of history at the Amon Carter Museum), “credit him with inspiring them while they were yet children searching for an artistic identity.” Posada’s work appeared on the covers of many Mexican journals throughout the Díaz years and on thousands of broadsides, especially of the ever-popular corridos. Yet he lived a life of anonymity, and he was interred by his Mexico City neighbors in a pauper’s grave, the state paying only for a sixth-class burial. His published work was virtually ignored until it was rediscovered by Jean Chariot in the 1920s.

Posada is perhaps best known for his representations of calaveras. The skeleton has always symbolized in Mexico the folk rituals of the Day of the Dead, with its papier-mâché dolls and sugar candies. Posada turned annually to this theme. He also went beyond religious symbols, however, to portray historic or literary figures as skeletons or with skull-like heads—Don Quijote, lance poised, on a bony Rocinante; Zapata the warrior; and even one of Posada’s publishers, Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. Jacques Lafaye, professor of Latin American Studies at the Sorbonne, sees this fascination with death’s-heads as a typically Mexican phenomenon, as the fusion, by the artist, of the “two mother cultures of modern Mexico in order to express, through the drama of his time, the tragic destiny of man” (p. 139). In his last years, as the Revolution threatens and then erupts, Posada “emerges as the prophet of doom . . . , playing hide and seek with death as he surveys, now mockingly, now tragically, a Mexico which was about to be swept into a gigantic ‘festival of the dead,’ a vast ballet, or mitote of calaveras” (p. 139).

This handsome and copiously illustrated book is based on an exhibition mounted by the Library of Congress and the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth, Texas. The editors have dedicated it to the late Jean Chariot, the French-Mexican artist whose final essay, “José Guadalupe Posada and His Successors,” appears here.