Stop at this Posada

The James Snidle Gallery offers some haunting printwork through August

VOZ DE MEXICO This woodblock print by Jose Guadalupe Posada, entitled “Seven Deadly Sins,” is typical of his highly charged caricatures.

VOZ DE MEXICO This woodblock print by Jose Guadalupe Posada, entitled “Seven Deadly Sins,” is typical of his highly charged caricatures.

In the early 1970s performance artist Chris Burton created some of the most extreme art pieces ever conceived.

In one piece, Burton had assistants shoot him in the left arm with a small-caliber pistol and photograph the shocking event. In another piece, Burden was literally crucified by having assistants nail him by the hands and feet to the top of his Volkswagen Beetle.

To some, these were daring and provocative pieces, and such art fulfilled its traditional function by holding up a mirror to a violent and self-absorbed society. To others, such attention-getting performances were merely cashing in on a trend that Vincent Van Gogh (of the severed ear) had unknowingly initiated: Modern art became as much about the artist as it was about the art.

Now shift to late-19th-century Mexico and the work of the popular illustrator and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, an artist about as far possible from this notion of the artist as self-obsessed hero. Though not a household word, the name “Posada” conjures up for many images of desperados, greedy generalísimos and gesticulating, grimacing calaveras, or skeletons, the widely known Day of the Dead image Posada played a role in popularizing. In fact, the Grateful Dead may well owe a debt of gratitude to Posada for that group’s name and signature icon.

But as striking as the art is, the story of Posada the man is hardly a tale worth telling. It falls within the sphere of that old children’s joke: “There was a man; he lived and he died. The End.” Posada himself was not one of his own colorful characters. He lived simply, churned out thousands of illustrations for newspapers and broadsheets, and quietly changed how Mexicans saw themselves.

Posada reached the people of Mexico through the simple medium of images carved into wooden blocks and then printed with black ink onto paper. People laughed out loud at the antics of his clown and criminals, and they gaped in horror as he told the story in pictures of a grisly murder committed the day before.

To a largely illiterate audience, Posada spread the news through pictures. He also changed the way several generations thought. Out of the welter of daily events, with its violence, its injustices, its comedies and its outrages, Posada and other popular artists helped forge a national consciousness, helped give the ordinary people of Mexico the sense that they were Mexicans—that they, too, had a voice.

Posada died in 1913, a few years before the Mexican Revolution he never lived to see but may have helped bring about. His importance was not lost on his more famous artistic offspring, Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who claimed Posada as a political and spiritual forebear for their own revolutionary art of the people.

Posada’s humble prints traveled all over Mexico and reached the United States as well. In the 1920s and 1930s, examples of Posada’s storytelling somehow reached the offices of a small publishing company and the eyes of the master woodblock carver and printer whom we now know only as “C. Gil,” an African-American artist now largely lost to history. Gil created numerous engraved pieces based on images by Posada, as well as by artists such as M. C. Escher, that were published as book illustrations.

Many fine illustrations carved and printed by C. Gil based on Posada’s and Escher’s famous images are now on view at the James Snidle Fine Arts Gallery on Fourth Street in Chico through the end of August. You many not come away with a clear picture of Posada the man, but his haunting images will leave an indelible impression.