Jose Posada: Mexico's Famed Graphic Artist




Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, MA through October 10, 2002


Calavera Katrina



The name might not register, but José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) is Mexico’s most-proclaimed graphic artist. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve likely seen at least one of his works: Calavera Catrina. Calavera translates as skeleton and Catrina is the female version of a dandy. Still stumped? Have you ever seen a Grateful Dead poster or album cover? The Dead plastered Calavera Catrina on everything.   


Happy and Wild Party



The Mexican fascination with skeletons baffles many people. Why focus on the grim subject of death and decay? First of all, Mexico has long been a Roman Catholic-dominated society. Calaveres are reminders that the flesh and earthly pleasures are supposed to view as transitory and shouldn’t be one’s focus. You find skeletons engaging in all manner of pleasure­–as in Posada’s Happy and Wild Party of All Calaveres­­—a symbol that there is an afterlife. Second, Catholicism was subject to syncretism, a fancy word that means its beliefs were influenced by older ones. The danse macabre was a prevalent image that emerged during Europe’s Black Death during the 14th century and likely came into Catholicism via older pagan and folk beliefs, like the pharaonic Egyptian view that the soul can inhabit tomb figurines. Mostly, though, in celebrations such as the Day of the Dead (November 1-2) animated skeletons reinforce the hope that when humans perish, their souls will persist.  


Oaxaca symbol



Hard to miss from this distance!



It should thus not surprise that Posada drew calaveres in all kinds of situations: riding bicycles, as a symbol of Oaxaca, or even as representations of revolutionary figures such as Emiliano Zapata. Posada managed to stay out of trouble during a very chaotic period. As in the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) was presaged by turmoil and then went through various phases in which the top dogs ended up on the wrong side of firing squads and garrote poles. Porfirio Diaz modernized Mexico, but was an autocrat with a penchant of turning former allies into rebels. It didn’t help that the United States meddled in the game of musical leadership chairs. (Just before World War I, the US sent General Pershing more than a thousand miles into Mexico in pursuit of bandito Pancho Villa.) 



Slanderous Girl Taken by the Devil

End of the World


 Posada used humor and satire to give the appearance of neutrality. His real views often came in his illustrations that accompanied corridos (ballads), many of which honored Mexican folk heroes such as Zapata and Villa. He also illustrated corridos written to comment on other things; the corrido is one of Mexico’s oldest folk music and poetic traditions. He played his cards shrewdly. Slanderous Girl Taken by the Devil appeased the Church, but his End of the World played better with neopagan outlooks. (Comets such as Haley’s often led the masses to imagine apocalyptic fates.) 



Posada’s other big role was that of a news illustrator. Photographs were often either unavailable or failed to arrive in time to satisfy what we today call “instant news.” Posada drew upon written accounts and used his imagination to fill in the proverbial blanks. An example of this is his illustration of firefighters trying to put out a blaze.


His legacy includes the inspiration other artists drew from him. It’s an impressive list that includes Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera. Speaking for myself, I often give short shrift to graphic artists. Posada might just help me break that bad habit.


Rob Weir




Rodin Exhibit at the Clark



Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, MA through September 18, 2022


The Prodigal Son



Even those who know little about art recognize the name Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), a candidate for the most-famous sculptor in Western art history. Few indeed are those who don’t know The Thinker, a work so popular that it has been recast full size at least 50 times. A new exhibit at the Clark is devoted to works of Rodin in the United States. (He was French, in case you don’t know.)


I’m a great admirer of Rodin’s work and have been to numerous shows of his work, as well as Rodin museums in both Philadelphia and Paris. The Clark show is ostensibly linked to American collectors, art historians, and critics who advanced Rodin’s reputation in North America. My guess is that very few attendees will pay much attention to that and will gravitate to the sculptures.


The show’s subtheme, “Confronting the Modern” is more of a lure. Rodin was modern in the sense that he did not endlessly copy ancient and classical works. That’s probably because he grew up working class and was not accepted by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where copying or doing variations of such works was all the rage. Rodin drew inspiration from the ancients and drew upon classical themes, but he was seldom a copyist. He was especially drawn to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, for instance, but imagined scenes from it.  



Camille Claudel Bust of  Rodin


Rodin was a Roman Catholic and sculpted religious scenes, but his faith did not curb his voracious sexual appetite. He had a lifetime lover/partner named Rose Beuret, but he routinely had affairs with his models and students. Perhaps his most famous conquest was Camille Claudel, whom he mentored and bedded. She later became a competitor and a renowned sculptress in her own right. One of her heralded works, which is included in the show, is—you guessed it—Bust of Rodin (1887).  


The Hand of God



Most visitors will be surprised to learn that Rodin did not sculpt any of his works in marble. He worked by beginning with a quick sketch of his idea. Framed images of these will surprise; Rodin was either in a hurry or not very good at drawing. From these rough sketches he shaped clay models. If the work was to be cast in bronze, the clay was used to produce a plaster cast, which was then sent to the foundry and filled with molten metal. The marble works, though, were farmed out to others, including Albert Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, who was noted for his silky smooth surfaces. If this strikes you are odd and you wonder why Rodin is the “sculptor” of works he didn’t chisel, know that this was common practice in 19th century art. Many famed photographers (including Matthew Brady), for example, did not actually snap the images that bear their name. They produced the image in the darkroom and the person behind the lens was a mere “operator.” 


The Benedictions

John the Baptist

Mask of a Man with a Broken Nose



The Clark show contains many notable Rodin works—including The Thinker­—but let’s look at some other works. Rodin’s Catholicism is on display in pieces such as St. John the Baptist, The Prodigal Son, The Hand of God, and The Benedictions. So too is Ms. Claudel; she was the model for Thought. A bust of Arthur Eddy is modern in terms of subject matter; Eddy looks nerdy and studious. Although it appears classical at a glance, note the righthand turn in the schnoz of Man with a Broken Nose. A bronze work titled Hanako, the stage name of a Japanese actress, is decidedly non-classical and is consonant with the Orientalist fascination of numerous late 19th century Western artists. 


Bust of Arthur Jerome Eddy





A few other surprises include a terracotta study for Rodin’s famed statue of Balzac and a small singular burgher that was later a larger figure in The Burghers of Calais. The latter was made to immortalize the town fathers who sacrificed themselves and saved Calais residents in 1347 by surrendering to the English during the Hundred Years War. This figure is small because The Burghers of Calais was originally supposed to be incorporated into the work many call Rodin’s masterpiece, his gigantic The Gates of Hell (from Dante’s Inferno). That work is way too big and heavy to transport, but I admired the small figure for allowing me to see more detail than one can see in the nearly eight-foot tall Burghers ensemble


Balzac Study




You only have another month to catch this show and I recommend you do. You can also see another, which is the subject of my next blog post.


Rob Weir


The It Girl a Mix of Drama and Melodrama


THE IT GIRL (2021)

By Ruth Ware

Scout Press (Simon & Schuster) 389 pages.





Do you prefer drama or melodrama? If you don’t care, The It Girl is a murder mystery you will enjoy. Few modern authors can spin a tale as well as Ruth Ware. At her best, readers scarcely notice when Ware transgresses the drama/melodrama border; when the storyline is weak—think The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016)—we do. Luckily, The It Girl falls into the first category.


The term “It Girl” originated in the film industry. Evelyn Nesbit (1885-1967) is considered the first Hollywood It Girl, though the most famous was 1920s starlet Clara Bow. It Girl conjures an ingénue who is sexually alluring and draws a crowd. That’s April Clarke-Cliveden in a nutshell in this 21st century story set at Oxford University’s Pelham College. April seemingly has it all going on; she’s filthy rich, smart, beautiful, and a good actress. Never mind that she’s also pampered, privileged, vain, drinks too much, and is occasionally cruel. 


Against usual odds, her assigned first-year roomie at Pelham College is Hannah Jones, a rare working-class Oxfordian whose background necessitated working at a supermarket before coming to university. Against even greater odds, April becomes Hannah’s best friend and Hannah need not worry about pocket change any more; April thinks nothing of lending or giving Hannah designer frocks and shoes worth a small fortune. April becomes Hannah’s entrée into social circles she’d never crack on her own. Not surprisingly, many of them are men, especially medical student Hugh Bland, economy undergrad Ryan Coates, and hunky Will de Chastaigne, allegedly April’s boyfriend, though she’s so flirtatious that her sexual mores are hazy.


Ware applies a “Before” and “After” structure for much of the book, the “Before” largely confined to a single year at Oxford (2012) and “After” a decade later. The Oxford sections are light on serious studies and heavy on pub-crawls, pushing boundaries, and Hannah’s transformation from a mousy frump to a vivacious wit and intellect. It is also fraught with encounters with an older porter, John Neville, who is too familiar and has a creepy tendency of appearing in inappropriate places. But the only known strain in Hannah and April’s friendship is frisson between Hannah and Will. The Oxford experience collapses when April is strangled in her room and Neville is arrested for her murder, partly on Hannah’s testimony that he was the only person leaving the building after she discovered April’s body. 


In the “After” sections, Hannah and Will are married, living in Edinburgh, and expecting a baby. Will is a reluctant accountant; Hannah works in a bookstore, having left Oxford without her degree after April’s death. (She was too shattered by April’s death.) A big reason for moving to Scotland was to escape the endless hounding of journalists seeking her take on the death of the It Girl. Hannah’s been working on trauma recovery and is doing okay—though she occasionally thinks she “sees” April­­-–until the downward spiral cycle begins anew upon Neville’s death in prison. To his dying day, Neville proclaimed his innocence and Ryan, who had been a journalist before he had a stroke, thinks Neville might have been wronged. Ryan’s newshound friend Geraint discovered that none of Neville’s DNA was found on April’s body and there were other inconsistencies that cast doubt on the verdict.


A heavily pregnant Hannah travels back to Oxford to reopen a sealed can of worms, not that raging hormones, high blood pressure, and old wounds make for logical thinking. At around this juncture, Ware switches to a “Before” and “Before” format in which hours and days are in play, not a decade. Hannah discovers many things about her old friends, a mentor, and April that further muddy her perceptions. The novel concludes with a beat-the-clock chase and confrontation. If you ponder the latter too much, you might perceive that Ware careens into melodrama. Ditto the introduction of one of April’s family members who is more convenient than believable.


And yet… The It Girl is a classic page-turner that most readers will zip through in a sitting or two. Even when the plot turns obvious, Ware twists matters just enough to keep those pages turning. This novel is too new to have “Soon to be a Motion Picture” emblazoned on its cover, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time.


Rob Weir