Conversation of Ron Tyler with Jean Charlot and Peter Morse

Honolulu, July 6, 1978[1]

Ron Tyler (RT): Could you tell me how you first became acquainted with PosadaŐs work? 

Jean Charlot (JC): Well, I used to go behind the cathedral in the Z—calo in Mexico, but remember that was in 1920.  In 1920 Mexico was a city of about 200,000 people at most.  I think now itŐs six million or something like that.  [RT: 13 million.]  So behind the Z—calo there were those little shops that sold those littleÉwhat we call Images dŐEpinal in France.  There was a marvelous old lady on the landing outside the Vanegas Arroyo shop, but she was very ancient, about a hundred years old.  She had hung color penny sheets at the door, the way you see in the early nineteenth-century pictures.  They were Epinal things of the 1860s, and I asked if she had more of them, and she said, ŇNo, I donŐt receive them anymore.Ó  I bought a good bunch of those prints.  And about two doors from there was a very similar thing, and that was the Vanegas Arroyo retail shop.  There was a counter, and at the back of the counter there was an old lady, Do–a Carmen. 

Peter Morse (PM): The widow of Don Antonio. 

JC: I didnŐt know that at the time.  She liked me because every time I passed by (I was very poor at the time), I bought penny sheets from her.  Most of the penny sheets were by Posada though I didnŐt know it at that time.  So we became friends, and she called me El Francesito (the little Frenchman). 

And one day I asked who did the drawings, and she said, ŇAh! Guadalupe Posada, but thatŐs so long ago.  That was eight or nine years ago.Ó  And so she started telling me things about him.  Some of it was not historically correct.  For example she had not known of his life before he was in Le—n.  It was in Le—n that he married, and there was a big flood, and he lost his family, then he came to Mexico City.  So she said he was from Le—n.  While he was in Le—n he had the highest position socially he ever had.  That was not too high, but there was a school, rather a practicum.  You couldnŐt say it was a university.  People say that he was professor of lithography.  That is not quite correct.  He was the fellow who showed students how to use the tools of lithography, but nevertheless, he was a professor.  In Mexico that has Žclat.

The old lady was nice because she told me all kinds of things, but they were all mixed up.  One of them was that he was a drunkard and so on.  Antonio Vanegas Arroyo and people whose fathers were friends of Don Antonio, the real head of the house, the one who founded it in 1880, thought of Posada as a paid employee.  That was his point of view, and he was right.  He would say, now you have this poem to illustrate or we have this political event you have to illustrate.  And Don Antonio played both ends.  That is, if the tendencies of the buyers were conservative, then there would be a great apotheosis of D’az and all that stuff.  And if the buyers were not conservative, which was more and more the case after 1910, then he would have some revolutionary pamphlets printed.  He was very early in the game, which was good for him and for his shop.  And besides Do–a Carmen, who didnŐt move around much––she had bad legs and must have been older than I am now––there was Don Blas, who was the head of the firm at the time.  He was young and active, quite an intelligent man, and quite worthy of following his father in the firm.  Everybody was awfully nice to me. 

I said, ŇDo you have more of the blocks that you can print from?Ó  And they said, ŇOh, sure, come in the shop.Ó  The shop is where the presses were, and very often they left me alone in there with all those blocks around, and I made––youŐve seen them in the Metropolitan collection––quite a series of printings on typewriting paper or even tissue paper. 


PM: You actually took the block and inked it and worked it up yourself?


JC: I worked with my fingernail and had no way of holding the paper.  But then came that first recognition that there was a manÉletŐs not use the term genius.  LetŐs not say it because you get into the museum quality issue which I donŐt like to speak of.  But there was a giant for sure and a marvelous engraver, and that was Posada.  I put two things together: the stories of the old lady and the blocks that were of a superior quality.  After two years or so––I mean it was not an investigation because I was very busy with mural paintings––but after two years I had pretty much the image of Posada, the time when he was working.  You could guess, of course, the time of his death from the change, when they had only lesser people in the printing shop. 

So I thought it would be nice if myÉshall we say leftist or more than leftist friends, which were that whole group of muralists who were looking desperately for a plebeian artist, you see, because they wanted roots––I just thought it would be nice to tell them that there was such a guy.  So I wrote an article that appeared in 1925 in one of the little weeklies of Mexico.  I must say the title was very well chosen, ŇPosada, Engraver to the Mexican People.Ó[2]  I knew so little about Posada that––and this is a funny thing ––I misspelled his name, Guadalupe Posadas.  Posadas are the Christmas festivities in Mexico.  ThatŐs the one point that all my friends and enemies take to show how stupid I was because I misspelled the name of Posada in that article.  But that was the first public presentation of Posada by name, because his things were never forgotten.  They were published in books on folk art.  Dr. AtlŐs for instance.[3]


PM: ThatŐs right, that book of Dr. AtlŐs didnŐt even give his name. 


JC: No, just published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo.  ThatŐs all. 


RT: When you first started looking at all this material, did you think it was the work of many different men? 


JC: Well, I didnŐt know then.  I had no theory.  All of it was interesting to a Parisian who had just come directly from France, so even those prints that didnŐt have a great artistic quality had a great Mexicanismo, a great quality of being Mexican, so that made it more difficult to see which was good arte Mexicano and which were lesser arte Mexicano.  


PM: Jean, how was it that you wrote that 1925 article rather than Siqueiros or some other Mexican artist? 


JC: Because they were not interested.  The only man who had had direct contact with Posada, I mean who had seen him in the flesh, so to speak, was JosŽ Clemente Orozco.  Now Orozco had all kinds of defects, was quicker to hit people rather than to love them.  He was irritated by all that business of an art for the people––like that slogan: why make art for the people? they make their own art.  But in truth, he would stroll out of the academy where he was a student––I think he was studying architecture at the time––make a little detour, pass by PosadaŐs shop, go in, and see Posada engraving.  They were using what they call blanquillo metal, which is for type.  Orozco watched him cut his plates and said he put shavings in his pockets as a souvenir.  Now, I wouldnŐt believe anybody else, but Orozco never told a lie.  If he thought you were a skunk, he told you were a skunk.  So that story has great weight coming from Orozco. 

On the other hand, when I started taking some of the original blocks, I would carry them in my pockets with me when we were making frescoes.  I was making frescoes, and Rivera was making frescoes in the Ministry of Education.  And one day I was there when he was making the panel of the Santa Anita Procession, the women from the tropics.  I took one of the little blocks out of my pocket and showed it to him.  He looked at it and said, ŇOh, IŐve never seen an original block,Ó he said. ŇI know only the prints.Ó  Since then he tried to hitch himself to the wagon.  The guy [Posada] became famous, and the stories got bigger.  Bigger than Rivera.  I donŐt believe a word of him.  I donŐt think he ever went into PosadaŐs shop, much as he would like people to believe it. 


PM: But Orozco you can believe.  I think, too, itŐs remarkable that youŐre one of the relatively few people that Orozco really, really––should I say admired––but anyway, talked to as a friend. 


JC: You have to know Spanish a bit, but the Mexicans were absolutely astonished and aghast when Orozco called me his cuate [literally, twin] because cuate implies the closest, closest link between people.  It can be within the family or out of the family.  If you are cuate, itŐs more than being in the family.  ItŐs as if two are one.  So, I didnŐt admire him for his defects.  I admired him as a great artist and for his truthfulness. 

I donŐt know how popular you want to make your Posada show, but I think it would be nice if it were something that scholars could look at later on and profit by.  You frighten me when you say, for example, we should just speak of the masterpieces of Posada, because thatŐs the worst way of dividing things.  I mean, are they of museum caliber?  ThatŐs what people ask all the time about Posada: ŇAre they of museum caliber?Ó  I donŐt know if they are Ňmuseum caliber,Ó but I know that they did their job and they surely did it well.  The intention was to have a revolution.  What I am trying to say is, so many catalogs of exhibitions look awfully good when the exhibition is there and collapse when the exhibition is gone, and I would like to produce at least one original study that could be used later on when the exhibition isnŐt there, you see? 


PM: How do you deal with the question thatŐs not been satisfactorily dealt with so far as to who did those great posthumous calaveras?  Those that were done after Posada was presumably dead; the Huerta Spider, the Zapata on Horseback, and the guy Madero with the worms crawling on his body. 


JC: I say, the guy who did those couldnŐt be Posada, because he was dead when all those things happened.  


PM: Posada died in April [January] of 1913. 


JC: Madero was not yet killed.  Huerta was not yet President.  As to the calavera of ZapataÉ 

PM: How well known was Zapata in April of 1913? 


RT: He was well known. 


JC: Calaveras are very often of living people, you see.  He was in the papers and so on, and Huerta was just a general.  He would not have made him in the image of that Spider unless he was president of the republic. 


RT: ThereŐs a new book on Posada thatŐs just out by Antonio Rodr’guez, who says that those two are by Posada.  He says that the Spider is not necessarily Huerta.  He says it looks like Huerta because any skeleton looks like anybody you want to compare it to.  So he says that he calls it Tarantula rather than Huerta, and he says it was probably begun by Posada and finished by an assistant.  This is held in great scorn in Mexico. 


JC: And by me here.[4] 


RT: Nobody believes him.  


JC: You could look at the text, you know, because it says he is our presidente.  That could be the end of this theory. 


PM: Would you like to just look?[5]  Let me see if I can find the big ones, The Huerta.  ThereŐs also the one with the maggots, which is very little known.  IŐve forgotten the title on that.   


JC: Well, itŐs done by the same guy, the Madero with maggots.  Ah, thereŐs the rotten Posada!  That one isnŐt as decisive in the argument as The Huerta because I think Huerta is referred to as el presidente in the text and the artist would have to be definitely expressing him as The Spider.  And that one, of course, is the calavera of Zapata when he was alive.  I would say it couldnŐt be Posada.  You can see the way the guy uses his tools.  I mean purely technicallyÉ  


RT: I agree.  That looks even more like ManillaŐs work than The Huerta to me. 


JC: Well, itŐs too late for Manilla.  He was dead.  Look at the way the artist scratches the best he can on that stuff there.  And look at those poor calaveras.  I mean, he doesnŐt know how to draw one.  I donŐt think it can be Manilla.  ItŐs too late.  And, gosh, there were not just two of those guys with Vanegas Arroyo.  Vanegas Arroyo had a stable of writers, you know, in which there were perhaps fifteen writers of quite great worth as folk-people, and he could certainly find a dozen or so artists to do a thing like that.  Gee, that guyŐs just completely different.  DonŐt I have The Huerta in there? 


PM: Yes, just a minute, weŐre getting down to it.  Here! 


JC: It is pitiful.  I mean, the smallness.  The spirit is all wrong. 


PM: HereŐs the maggot one.  LetŐs take a look at that.  ThatŐs the rarest of the batch. 


JC: Now that is Madero with the gusanos [maggots], and heŐs dead.  ThatŐs the calavera.  ThatŐs the dead, the dead Madero.  He died after Posada, not by much, but he died after Posada. 


RT: It only has 1913 for the date. 


JC: Well, itŐs the beginning of what they call the Diez D’as Tr‡gicos, when Huerta became president and had Madero shot.  And Posada was dead.  The text here is really baring the Maderistas and Madero and so on.  Never would they have done that if Madero was still president, which he was when Posada died.  It is obvious here that Madero is dead, the other guys are president and so on.  Things that Posada never knew.  That one, PosadaŐs Madero as a calavera with a bottle, is interesting.  The bottle refers to MaderoŐs father.  He had a huge hacienda of maguey, and they made tequila.  That was a tequila of paras, aguafuerte de paras, like on the label of the bottle.  It was the business of his father.  He was very rich.  Well, put that little guy back, The Zapata on Horseback.  Absolutely not.  It cannot be.  ItŐs done by a timid guy who hasÉ  


PM: Well, I donŐt see that because itŐs an image of such strength that certainly has caught peopleŐs attention over the years.  Maybe just because of the physical size of itÉ 


JC: Look at the calavera, the way it is engraved.  ItŐs pitiful. 


RT: The overall thing is strong, but the details donŐt hold up. 


JC: You may have had a beginning by Posada, a drawing or something.  But that poor horse with his funny eyesÉ


PM: WeŐre going to have to look at a lot more before we know.  I just wish we could get some objective evidence.  What else did this guy ever do besides these three big metal cuts here? 


RT: ThatŐs a good point. 


JC: Well, why donŐt we go downstairs and have something nice and refreshing in the garden? 


[1] Ron Tyler of the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art was organizing his exhibition of JosŽ Guadalupe Posada and its catalog, Ron Tyler, ed., PosadaŐs Mexico (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress in cooperation with the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1979).  CharlotŐs contribution to the catalog was ŇJosŽ Guadalupe Posada and his Successors,Ó 29–57.  

This text is based on Ron TylerŐs transcription of the original tape, now unlocated.  Tyler emailed me on June 22, 2010: ŇAs I remember, the quality of the tape was pretty poor, and I had a hard time transcribing it.Ó  Editorial comments in brackets are by Tyler on the original transcription.  I am grateful for his help in the editing of this text as well as for his permission to post it. 

[2] ŇUn Precursor del Movimiento del Arte Moderno, El Grabador Posadas,Ó Revista de Revistas, Number 25, August 30, 1925.

[3] Dr. Atl, Las Artes Populares en MŽxico, 2 vols. (1921; Mexico: Editorial Cultura, 1922).     

[4] Tyler wrote on June 23, 2010: ŇThis is one of my favorite lines from the entire interview.Ó 

[5] Tyler believes they were looking at original prints from CharlotŐs collection.