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Joking with Death: Sugar Skull Design & More

With Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) and the Americanized version, Halloween, approaching, we dug into the archives to bring you Susan N. Masuoka’s Joking with Death article from 1984. Learn about the cultural significance of skull design, skeletons and death motifs in Mexico. 

Joking with Death

By Susan N. Masuoka

Elegantly dressed dancing skeletons and pyramid stacks of skulls are not part of most people’s daily visual vocabulary. In Mexico, however, such motifs are a tradition thousands of years old, and are still commonly featured in modern-day murals, window displays, illustrations and games.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Mexico City’s central plaza featured ten-foot-tall, abacus-like racks of skulls, a grisly memorial to the Aztecs’ own conquests. To the pre-Columbian civilizations who believed that death was simply an extension of life, such a sight was not at all alarming. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz writes: “Death was not life’s natural end, but rather a phase in an infinite cycle.”*

Today, skulls and death deities can still be seen adorning the stone architecture of the Mesoamerican archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Copan and Palenque, as well as the newly discovered Templo Mayor site in downtown Mexico City, seat of the Aztec empire when Cortez entered the new world.

Fig. 3—Display of rock candy skulls

Fig. 4—Papier-mâchè sculpture of a skeleton drummer by Pedro Linares. Courtesy of UCLA Museum of Cultural History; photographer: Antonia Graeber

The everyday use of death motifs, however, did not end with the ancient Mexican culture. Half a millennia later, the descendants of the Aztecs, Mayas, Mixtecs and Zapotecs annually celebrate November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, by devouring rock candy skulls (Fig. 3), hanging paper cut-outs depicting skeletal Old Man Reapers and decorating their homes and shop windows with horse-riding, guitar-playing, flower-vending skeletons of cardboard and papier-mâché (Fig. 4).

Such images seem alien in U.S. society, where skeletons are usually relegated to biology classrooms or to the closest from which they come tumbling forth in horror movies. But to Mexicans, for whom death motifs are common elements of popular art, they don’t seem at all incongruous.

Fig. 6—Broadside illustration by José Guadalupe Posada of 1910 presidential candidate, Francisco Madero. Library of Congress, Prints and Photography Div., Swann Collection.

Fig. 7—A contemporary broadside, “Calaveras Influyentes,” published in 1982

Fig. 8—Oaxacan toy tomb decorated with cut-out designs and used as a lantern. Courtesy of UCLA Museum of Cultural History; photographer: Richard Todd

Not only are skeletal forms commonplace as Day of the Dead trappings, but they are also frequently used as symbols for social and political satire. Even today, during the annual fall celebrations, cartoonists poking fun at politicians depict them as skeletons, attach mock obituaries of the public figures written in caustic verse (Fig. 7).

The 19th-century graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), through his prolific production of illustrated newspaper broadsides, was the most important artistic popularize of this visual style (Figs. 6, 10-13, 17). Dressed in Mexican peasant costume or contemporary European fashions, Posada’s personified skeletons are alive with playfulness, yet carry themselves with a distinct air of dignity. Through these animated, beer-swilling, promenading, fruit-vending skeletons, Posada’s audience is familiarized with death in a manner contrasting dramatically with the academic or fearful context in which we usually regard it. These figures illustrate Paz’s observation that the Mexican “jokes with death, he caresses her, he sleeps with her, he celebrates with her; she is one of his favorite toys and his ever-lasting love.”*

Fig 10—Broadside illustration of “Catrina,” the calavera female dandy, by José Guadalupe Posada.

Fig. 9—Center panel from Diego Rivera’s mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” located in Hotel del Prado, Mexico City. The mural features José Guadalupe Posada’s “Catrina” skeleton, the female dandy, as well as portraits of Posada (right), Diego Rivera as a child (left), and his wife, Frida Kahlo (left, second row).

Fig 11—Broadside illustration of drinking peasant by José Guadalupe Posada. Fig 12—Broadside illustration of a gendarme by José Guadalupe Posada. Fig 13—Broadside illustration by José Guadalupe Posada of an upper-class, fashionably dressed woman.

In honor of the dead, brightly colored altars are set up in homes and public places (Fig. 5) on November 1st and 2nd (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day). Traditionally, such altars are highly personal tributes for the dead in one’s family, who are said to return and visit in the home. But restaurants, shops, hotels and town councils nowadays join in the spirit of the holiday with their own Day of the Dead displays.

Decorating these elaborate altars are such edible delicacies as bowls of chocolate mole sauce, atoll (a corn drink), chocolate candy, fruits and sometimes bottles of aguardiente (cane liquor, literally “fire water”). Also adorning these presentations are scores of yellow zempasuchitl (marigold) flowers and tissue paper cutouts. Altars made in honor of the souls of dead children always include sugar skulls and small toys of skeletons and coffins (Fig. 8). These toys come in an imaginatively wide variety of materials, colors and forms. They reflect in three dimensions the same decisive view of the transient concerns of the living that Posada captured so well in his prints. These homemade tors are folk art in the true sense, charmingly naïve in their proportions and execution.

The great Mexican muralists of the post-Revolutionary period consciously tapped their unique cultural heritage and death motifs were prominent in their work. The centerpiece of the northern façade of the famous mosaic-covered library at Mexico’s National University, a work by Juan O’Gorman, is an elaborately costumed death deity adorned with bones and skulls. With these symbols, O’Gorman reminds his countrymen of the notable use of death images in Mesoamerican art and the importance of the concept of death to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilizations.

Fig. 14—Wire and plaster sculptures by Saúl Moreno. Courtesy of UCLA Museum of Cultural History; photographer: Antonia Graeber.

Fig. 15—Illustration by Gerardo Cantú from children’s book, Francisca y la Muerte. Publisher: Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo, 1979, Mexico City. Reproduced with permission from Mexico’s Secretaría de Educación Publica, Dirección General de Publicaciones Y Bibliotecas.

Fig. 16—Death card from children’s picture lotto game.

Fig. 17—Broadside illustration by José Guadalupe Posada of a fashionably-dressed, upper-class couple.

Diego Rivera also often represented death and Day of the Dead celebrations in his art. Perhaps his best-known homage to this visual arts tradition can be found in the mural in Mexico City’s Hotel del Prado (Fig. 9), featuring Posada’s famous “Catrina” skeleton (Fig. 10), the dandified female socialite who sports a feathered shawl representing Quetzalcoatl, the dominant deity of pre-Columbian Mexico. The figure of Posada stands on one side of Catrina, while on the other, holding her hand, is a young boy, a self-portrait of Diego Rivera as a child.

Animated skeletons can be seen in children’s games, such as lotería, a picture lotto featuring skulls and skeletal characters (Fig. 16). Calaveras, the dressed skeletons, also appear in children’s books teaching moral lessons (Fig. 15).

These symbols of death reflect the fatalistic Mexican philosophy of life. As Octavio Paz noted: “Whether skulls made from sugar or tissue paper, or skeletons illuminated by fireworks, our popular images are all mockeries of life, affirmations of the nothingness and insignificance of human existence.”*

*Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz, Fodo de Cultura Económica, 1959, Mexico City

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