Feb 17, 2012

The Dead and The Fantastical Come Alive in Mexican Art - Part I

I want to be like water.
I want to slip through fingers, but hold up a ship.
Michelle Williams 

Sadly, I developed a respiratory infection that wore me out for the best of three days so I thought I would use that down-time to explain some of the common types of artwork we see in Mexico since many of these styles are now migrating into the US along the normal Mexican immigrant routes.

Much of that art carries its inspiration from the Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos [or Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased) or Día de los Finados (Day of the Departed)] so I’ll convey what we have learned about this important event in the lives of Mexicans.

As Nobel laureate Octavio Paz remarks in The Labyrinth of Solitude, the Day of the Dead affirms "the nothingness and insignificance of human existence", adding that many modern Mexicans joke about death as they "caress it, sleep with it, and celebrate it" while they "look at it, face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony."

Since I cannot write it any better, I will begin by sharing the following excellent article by Mary Jane Gagnier Mendoza.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): The dead come to life in Mexican folk art

“For foreigners, the traditions and celebrations in Mexican homes and cemeteries during the Day of the Dead seem strange, if not incomprehensible. There is mourning and rejoicing; sadness and silliness - woven together into one emotional fabric.

To me, it's like welcoming the return of a dear friend or relative, who moved far away and visits just once a year. Mexicans try very hard to be with their families for this fiesta, as the living and the dead gather for the most complete of family reunions.

The Day of the Dead activities actually span several days, beginning late at night Oct. 31, when the spirits of dead children (angelitos – 12 years or younger since pre-puberty is synonymous with pure innocence) start arriving, followed by adult spirits sometime during Nov. 1. They leave, after joining in a family meal, on Nov. 2. Although exact times for the spirits' entrances vary from pueblo to pueblo, the angelitos always arrive ahead of the adults.

I grew up in a French-Canadian Catholic family. From an early age, I believed that when you died, you put on a white satin smock with lace around the cuffs and joined the anonymous army of souls (in heaven if you were lucky).

Mexicans have a distinctly different view of themselves in the afterlife. First, you keep your identity, since to return to this world for the Day of the Dead, you must remain who you were. This explains the profusion of skeletons (calacas) of all sizes, doing ordinary day-to-day things. If uncle José was a barber, he continues as a barber after death. Placing a skeleton figure of a barber on your altar reaffirms to uncle José that he has not been forgotten on his spiritual return.

Most Oaxacan homes have a highly adorned Day of the Dead altar. Sugar skulls with the names of dead loved ones inscribed in their icing indicate to the returning spirits that they have indeed returned to the right spot, where the living awaits their arrival. The altar is a sort of landing pad and its objects serve as signals to guide the spirits home.

Throughout the year, but especially during the Day of the Dead season, calacas, or skeletons, are displayed in shops throughout the city. In the Abastos (open air in Oaxaca) market, for a few pesos each, you'll find cardboard, wire and cotton-ball figures depicting nearly every walk of life. The more upscale folk art stores display elaborate ceramic and paper maché calacas, individually signed by renowned Mexican folk artists.


The skeletons and skulls of Mexican folk art reflect the dualism fundamental to the pre-Hispanic world view. Without duality in all aspects of life, the universe loses its equilibrium. Animal and human forms; masculine and feminine energies - all are needed. Of all these balancing forces, perhaps none is more significant than that of life and death.

Images expressing dualities abound in Mexican folk art. The Nahuals of Oaxacan woodcarvers, for example, are supernatural beings that transform back and forth from animal to human form and from human to animal form. The belief in Nahuals is well-documented in indigenous folk culture. However, if a survey were taken among Mexico's folk artists, the combined imagery of life and death - la vida y la muerte - would emerge as the most popular and pervasive theme.

The iconographic image of the living and dead sharing a single body or head remains a common visual theme in Mexican folk art. The reason is simple: for the Mexican, life and death are part of the same linear process. Birth leads into life, and life leads to death. Join the ends of the process and the cycle of life is created.

The roots of this duality are ancient and deep. The Borgia Codex depicting pre-Hispanic life shows two gods: Quetzalcoatl, the god of life who governs the earth and sky; and Mictlantlecuihtl, the god of the underworld and keeper of the dead. They appear in profile, joined at the spine. At first glance, they seem a single form. Two distinct shapes then define themselves, one complementing the other and the two together forming a complete whole. Each, we learn, needs the other to justify its existence.


No exploration of the Day of the Dead would be complete without a discussion of the ephemeral creations used in its celebration. Most of the elaborate Day of the Dead altars found in Oaxacan homes are adorned with authentic works of art meant to last no longer than the fiesta itself.

To Western culture oriented to preserving everything as long as possible, it may seem strange to expend so much labor on objects having no other purpose than to be consumed and destroyed. Mexicans, especially indigenous Oaxacans, see themselves as ephemeral beings in an ephemeral world. To enjoy material objects, yet be willing to relinquish them, is totally natural to them.

Nothing is more ephemeral than the sugar used to make elaborate skulls, angels, and animals for the Day of the Dead. Saving these items for the following year would never occur to Oaxacans. Children used to wait all year for parents to buy them calaveras de azucar with their names inscribed in the icing. Today, chocolate skulls are replacing the sugar ones, but the tradition of eating sweet skulls is as alive as ever.

Papel picados - intricately cut tissue paper banners depicting scenes of skeletons dancing, drinking and otherwise celebrating - are strung along the edge of altars, creating a lacey border. Non-Mexicans often ask how to preserve them. "You shouldn't," I say, "because they were never made for that." Such ephemera celebrate other events and fiestas as well. White tissue paper is used for weddings. Red, white and green commemorate Independence Day. A riot of color surrounds the Day of the Dead. When fiestas end, papel picados are left to fly in the open air until rain reduces them to nothing.

Flowers, candles and incense are indispensable to any lovingly adorned altar. Wax flowers, fruits, and cherubs decorate hand-dipped beeswax candles. As the candles burn non-stop, the wax decorations are set aside to be melted for the next batch of candles.


A thriving tradition of toy-making plays a central role in the Oaxacan Day of the Dead. Among such diverse themes as the Nativity, bullfights and carnival rides, the skeleton is by far the most popular image. Mariachi calaveras in the form of puppets made of painted plywood and string are special favorites among small children. Who knows what makes skeleton toys funnier than toys depicting the living? Maybe it's the surprising juxtaposition of the dead doing something lively and spirited that brings a chuckle to the most sober face. Perhaps by making death more approachable through friendly images, like a dancing skeleton playing a guitar, Mexicans begin to lose their fear of death at an early age.

Skeleton with sombrero and woven blanket
Artist: Johnny Cago
Even pets are now turned into creative skeletons as they are increasingly becoming part of Mexican families


The name Posada and lively skeletons are linked as few other icons of contemporary Day of the Dead culture. Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) popularized Mexico's life of the dead in bitingly satiric, mass-produced etchings and lithographs that have enthralled Mexicans for generations.

By depicting social and political personalities as calaveras, Posada's posters achieved lasting and unrivaled popularity. By caricaturing his targets in their bare bones, his scathing and often risky political satire became funnier and thus more acceptable.

In his posters, priests, politicians, farmers and street sweepers share the same destiny - death, an end neither money nor power can outwit. For a country living in extreme social inequality during the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, the idea of the rich and poor alike one day rubbing elbows (if only bone to bone) was attractive to the masses.

Posada's hand-printed calaveras, accompanied by witty social commentary in rhyming verse, reached the farthest corners of the Mexican Republic. To this day, his work pervades the image and spirit of Mexican folk artists. The Catrina, an upper-class lady of the turn-of-the-century always depicted in her broad-brimmed hat, has become a classic in Mexican folk art and is displayed prominently in many store windows. The images can be found in everything from fine ceramic and artistic paper maché figures, to inexpensive papel picados and plaster miniatures.

Nothing is static about Posada's calaveras (mischievous skeletons). They are always up to something, going somewhere or, as in the Calavera Oaxaquena, just raising hell.

For all of you who like to travel, be assured that in the afterlife you'll get a chance to come back, kick up your heels with loved ones and, like the Calavera Oaxaquena, raise hell. So three cheers to the life of the dead - in Mexican folk art!” - - - Mary Jane Gagnier Mendoza

La Calavera Catrina, (From Wikipedia) "The Elegant Skull" came from a 1910 zinc etching by Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada. The image has since become a staple of Mexican imagery, and often is incorporated into artistic manifestations of the Day of the Dead in November, such as altars and calavera costumes. The etching was part of his series of calaveras, which were humorous images of contemporary figures depicted as skeletons, which often were accompanied by a poem.

La Catrina, as it is commonly known, was a popular print in Posada's day, but soon faded from the popular memory. Along with the rest of Posada's prints, it was revived by French artist and art historian Jean Charlot shortly after the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s. La Catrina soon gained iconic status as a symbol of uniquely Mexican art and was reproduced en masse.

You encounter Catrinas at the entry of restaurants, sometimes holding menus or just waving you in. You also notice many at the entrance of art galleries. As you can see from the pictures above, they can be made of ceramic, metal, clay or paper maché and from miniature to full human size.

Papel picado, Papel cortado
Papel Picado, (From Wikipedia) “Perforated paper” is a decorative craft made out of paper cut into elaborate designs. Although it is a Mexican folk art, papel picado is used as a holiday decoration in many countries. The designs are commonly cut from tissue paper using a guide and small chisels, creating as many as forty banners at a time. Papel picado can also be made by folding tissue paper and using small, sharp scissors (then called papel cortado). Common themes include birds, floral designs, and skeletons. They are commonly displayed for both secular and religious occasions, such as Easter, Christmas, the Day of the Dead, as well as during weddings, quinceñareas, baptisms, and christenings. In Mexico, papel picado is especially incorporated into altars during the Day of the Dead.

Papel picado comes from Chinese paper cutting and it was made in Europe during the sixteenth century, although it was called 'papel cortado' (cut paper). The two crafts are not exactly the same, as the European version was cut, while the Mexican form is chiseled. In Mexico, during the middle of the nineteenth century, people were forced to buy products from hacienda stores, where they encountered China paper.

During the Aztec times, Aztecs used mulberry and fig tree barks to make a rough paper called "Amatl". When tissue paper became available, artisans usually layer 40 to 50 layers of tissue and punch designs into them using "fierritos", a type of chisel. Paper Picados are hung with strings and are called "banderitas".

San Salvador Huixcolotla is a municipality in the Mexican state of Puebla and is considered the center of papel picado. It is known for having a large community of craftsman who produce high quality papel picado.

In Huixcolotla, papel picado is primarily produced for the celebrations surrounding the Day of the Dead. Over time, the tool used to make papel picado has changed from scissors to chisels because of the greater precision and detailing they allow. Traditionally, the art of making papel picado has been passed from generation to generation. Around 1930, the art spread from Huixcolota to other parts of Mexico such as Puebla and Tlaxcala. Sometime in the 1960's, papel picado spread to Mexico City and from there to the United States and Europe.

The Ministry of Tourism and Culture in Mexico officially recognizes and supports the art of papel picado. In 1998, the governor of the state of Puebla decreed that the style of papel picado produced in San Salvador Huixcolota is part of the 'Cultural Heritage of the State of Puebla (Patrimonio Cultural del Estado de Puebla).

Sky blue or pink and white are commonly chosen for celebrations in honor of the Virgin Mary, yellow and white for patron saints, vibrant pink, orange, and purple are the key tones employed for ofrendas (offerings) associated with the Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos). Shades of purple are also widely used at Easter. The colors of the Mexican flag -- red white and green -- are set aside for venerating the nation's patroness, La Virgen de Guadalupe, as well as for commemorating Independence Day, Sept. 16th. Rainbow hues are appropriate for Christmas and non religious festivities.

Papel cortado
Senor Reynoso - papel picado artist
Señor Reynoso has been making custom papel picados for 40 years! Using handmade steel chisels in hundreds of shapes, every line is cut with the strike of a hammer. Reynoso cuts about 30 sheets of tissue paper at a time! One wrong move and they are all ruined!

In North America, the snowflakes that most kids cut out around the Christmas holidays could be considered a type of Papel Cortado

Calavera, (from Wikipedia) The word calavera, Spanish for "skull", can refer to a number of cultural phenomena associated with the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead and the Roman Catholic holiday All Souls Day.

Sugar Skull Tradition (Calaveras de azúcar) - Sugar art was brought to the New World by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. The first Church mention of sugar art was from Palermo at Easter time when little sugar lambs and angels were made to adorn the side altars in the Catholic Church.

Mexico, abundant in sugar production and lacking money to buy fancy imported European church decorations at the time, learned quickly from the friars how to make sugar art for their religious festivals. Clay molded sugar figures of angels, sheep and sugar skulls go back to the Colonial Period 18th century. Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit. Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments. Common ingredients for making sugar skulls include powdered sugar, egg white, corn syrup, vanilla, and corn starch. Typically, sugar skulls need to dry overnight or for several hours. Sugar skulls are labor intensive and made in very small batches in the homes of sugar skull makers. However, these artisans are disappearing as fabricated and imported candy skulls take their place.

See Part 2 for more...

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