South American Art

Party with Skulls and Skeletons: Day of the Dead in Mexico

Magda Michalska 2 November 2021 min Read

Heaven and Earth are never as close as they are today. Today, November 2, is the Day of the Dead, when spirits come to Earth to meet their relatives and eat and drink with them. At least this is what happens on the Day of the Dead in Mexico…

Diego Rivera, The sacrificial offering. Day of the Dead, 1924, Court of Fiestas, Mexico
Diego Rivera, The Sacrificial Offering. Day of the Dead, 1924, Secretariat of Public Education Main Headquarters, Mexico City, Mexico.

The origins of this day and its basic motifs can be traced back 3,000 years to the Aztecs, but the iconography of skeletons and skulls that is so familiar to us today, we merit to José-Guadalupe Posada, who drew hundreds of personified skeletons, and Diego Rivera, who portrayed the traditional celebrations of this holiday.

Diego Rivera, The Day of the Dead, 1944, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City
Diego Rivera, The Day of the Dead, 1944, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico.

On this day, people visit their dead in cemeteries. They bring food and drink. They play cards, sing songs, and pray. They also make colorful altars to their family spirits in their houses, which are decorated with flowers, feathers, nuts, candies, and chocolate skulls.

Jose Guadalupe Posada, Calavera From Oaxaca
Jose Guadalupe Posada, Calavera From Oaxaca, 1910. The Public Domain Review.

Calavera means ‘skull’, but its meaning can be extended to ‘skeletons’. Posada made a whole series of etchings depicting calaveras doing some nasty, or less nasty, things. This proud-looking one is dressed as a charro, a traditional Mexican cowboy. He is running past a crowd of skeletons with a blood-stained knife in his hand.

Jose Posada, El Jarabe en ultratumba, 1910
Jose Guadalupe Posada, El Jarabe en ultratumba, 1910. Art of the Print.

The Folk Dance Beyond the Grave depicts a group of merry skeletons who are celebrating their holiday. They eat, drink, play music, and dance the traditional Mexican folk dance, jarabe.

José-Guadalupe Posada, Calavera of the Cyclists (Calavera las biciletas),c. 1889-1895
José Guadalupe Posada, Calavera of the Cyclists (Calavera las biciletas), c. 1889-1895, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

Posada published his etchings in the public press, often with a satirical message. This time, however, it’s more a moralistic one: it’s never too late to pick up sports!

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