Historia del Taller y de sus Precursores
Printing in Mexico
In order to understand the Taller de Gráfica Popular, its work and artists, we must place it in the historical context of Mexico in general as well as the specific historical context of the day. The Taller was one of a number of artists groups established after the Mexican Revioution and its creation was a reflection of the groups which preceeded it as well as contemporary poticics and the history of Mexico in general.
One can go back to the first printed items in Mexico, which are also the first printed items in the Western hemisphere, to begin the search for the origins of the TGP. In these first days, reli- gious texts and broadsides were used in the process of conversion. Not intended for the people, these printed items were for libraries of the ruling class as well as clergy engaged in the conver- sion process. At this time, the vast majority of the populace could not read a book, much less afford it.
By the 18th century the market for printing gained strength with print shops gradually shifting from prints as book illustrations to everything from currency and architectural views to playing cards. As the 18th century was coming to a close the market for printing moved further away from its religious beginnings with illustrations being made for many scientific purposes including astronomy, anthropology, botany and medicine. As before, few of these items were for the people, with most being for the ruling class which held sway over such production for the colonial peri- od as well as the first part of Mexico's history.
After the Mexican War for Independence from Spain in the early 19th century there was a tre- mendous growth in printing. In the mid 1820s lithography was introduced to Mexico by the Italian Claudio Linati. His periodical, El Iris, is considered a progenitor to the numerous papers which would spring up in Mexico City in the years to follow. It didn't take long for the print- ing workshops to recognize the potential market provided by the larger part of society, which was experiencing a slowly increasing rate of literacy. The gap between the literate and illiterate was often bridged by illustrated papers which employed remarkable images (usually lithographs) describing current events with humorous clarity combined with remarkable caricatures of promi- nent figures.
The importance of these "penny papers" can not be overestimated, either as an influence on the nature of periodical writing/illustration or, ultimately, on the work of most 20th century Mexican artists. While opinions vary, there are strong indications that print artists of the mid 19th century such as Constantino Escalante, Jesús Alamilla, José María Villasana, Gabriel Vincente Gahona and others were influenced by similar illustrative styles and techniques in use in Spain and France. Certainly France was one of only a few other places in the world where lithography was being used to such great effect. Ultimately, Manuel Manilla and José Guadalupe Posada would draw their styles, in large measure, from these mid 19th century artists and the parameters established by their publishers.
With Linati's introduction of lithography and the (albeit brief) example provided by El Iris, the majority of the penny paper illustrations were created in a smooth and pricisely rendered style inherent to the medium. Posada would use lithography in his earliest work (in Aguascalientes and Guanajuato) as well as for some of his last works (in chromolithography.) While lithography had many desirably characteristics, it was soon discovered that relief cuts in wood or type metal could be completed more quickly, had a more dramatic appearance and, most importantly, could be printed simultaneously with movable type.
Much of the success of these papers hinged on the ability to quickly bring the news of the day to the street. Where before there might be days between a story 'breaking' and its representation in illustrated text, with Posada and his contemporaries able to render an image for printing in a matter of minutes the publishers could sieze the market of the moment by having sheets telling of the latest tragedy on the street within a scant few hours. To produce a sheet with a litho- graphic illustration meant that the image had to be drawn and processed on the stone, the image printed and then all the sheets run again on a letter press for the text, a difficult and time con- suming process. The ability to generate papers quickly with relief illustrations marks one of the defining moments of the transition from mid 19th century printing to printing in the time of Manilla and Posada. It also broadened the market for printed items, creating a heyday for Mexican printers. An exceptionally effecient system of production and distribution made imme- diate accounts of current events available to larger numbers than ever before.
The growth of the printing industry did not mean that printers were working without the notice of the government. Throughout the 19th century, as the government transitioned from the colonial period through the turbulent independence movement (and a series of leaders of all stripes and descriptions) the press was, more often than not, closely monitered for content. An editor who was a bit overly critical might find himself behind bars. More than once presses were moved or shut down and reopened out of the most coercive type of necessity. As would be expected, it was the most biting political humour that brought the greatest sales with corre- spondingly greater risks. Yet it appears that loose boundaries were set and most editors were well aware of their limitations and the duration of their sentences if the boundaries were violated.
The time of greatest expansion in the printing industry coincided with the Porfiriato, the period of rule by Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911), the powerful leader who is considered part president and part dictator. His rule would be marked by a substantial expansion of most of Mexico's indus- tries as well as by a period of relative peace. While Diaz and his administration were subjected to scutiny by the press, it was somewhat limited in nature due to his relative popularity (for a sub- stantial part of his administrations) combined with a healthy fear of retribution.
In order to maximize profits, the presses needed to be busy. To achieve this aim the Vanegas Arroyo workshop and others printed a wide variety of items for the public. From religious images for pilgrims to the legendary calaveras for Dia de los Muertos, they would work vigorously to meet every concievable demand as well as creating new markets where possible. Cookbooks, songbooks and educational pamphlets for children are among the items that earned the pennies
which fueled the presses. These items had the additional benefit of being less controversial than the political papers, providing a source of income that was less subject to government scrutiny. Even with great organization, all good things eventually end. With the beginning of the twentieth century technology and politics would conspire yet again to change the nature of printing in Mexico.
By the end of the first decate of the new century Porfirio Diaz was becoming a shadow of his former self. The military was in a weakened state and the lack of a clear successor made the administration vulnurable in many ways. The little revolution of Madero and the consequent end of the Porfiriato in 1911, marked the beginning of the revolution, ushering in a period of extreme instability marked by violence and a series of leaders whose abilities and motivation would be almost universally held in question. This time also marked the last days of Posada and an eventual diminishment of the penny papers.
When Posada died the revolution was still very young. At the time of Posada's death in January of 1913 the usurper,Victoriano Huerta had not yet siezed control of the government. During the Decena Trágica (Ten Tragic Days) Huerta would convince Madero to give him control of the military, after which he would seize control, imprisoning and promptly murduring both Francisco Madero and his vice president Piño Suarez. The last works created by Posada during his lifetime reflect the fears of the people over the inescapably disrupting effects of the war. The nation also suffered a powerful loss of innocence when it was clear that the power of office had failed to protect Madero. The need to observe and, where safe, to question the actions of the government had never been higher.
With Posada gone it might be presumed that his work would fade from the scene. Much to the contrary, Posada's work, and Manilla's as well, would be recycled for years to come. Even during the Decena Trágica, with Posada barely in the ground, his images were used to relay the horror and fear in Mexico City as shells fell and armed clashed defined each day. Vanegas Arroyo would continue his practive of cutting up and reassembling Posada'a old plates up to make new images more reflective of the events of the day. Yet, in the long run, nothing could replace Posada's abili- ty to generate fresh images of the day. With no clear successor to his style the papers began the slow transition to other means of illustration. While relief prints would continue to appear in many papers, a large number of papers would start to rely more heavily on poor quality photo reproductions and drab linecuts to tell of the war. Not only did these images often fall short of the bold black and white relief prints, they also largely lacked the romanticism and selective emphasis of Posada's relief cuts and etchings.
There would still be examples by other, usually anonymous, artists of relief print work in the style of Posada, such as the image of Huerta as a giant calavera spider, long after Posada's death. A lack of early scholarship would lead to most of these images being attributed to Posada until superior research eventually helped to clarify the murky waters of artistic attribution. The large number of papers produced during the war years would show a gradual diminishment of style, often resembling more closely the newspapers of the United States. The complexities of war,
with battles being fought all over the nation, and the difficulty of relaying imges (photographic or otherwise) in a prompt fashion would lead many papers to emphasize (out of timely necessi- ty if no other) the written word, once again distancing the often marginally literate common man from the news of the day. Adding to the woes of the newspapers, it would not be long before radio would begin its endless and monotonous drone over the city, further reducing their market. By the 1920s the products of the Mexico City presses were mere echos of their former glory and the works of Manilla and Posada were on the verge of slipping into obscurity.
From Posada to the TGP:A Path through History
How does this history of printing relate to the more narrowly focused graphic workshops that would follow? All of the first generation of great Mexican artists of the 20th century would almost certainly have held the work of Posada in their hands at some point. As children they probably read some of the chapbooks. Diego Rivera stated, with serious question as to the veracity of the claim, that he 'studied' with Posada. Jose Clemente Orozco spoke, with more believability, of often passing the shop of Posada and even of taking some shavings from the cut- ting of engravings from the floor of the shop. Of course both of these claims were made after the rediscovery of Posada when it was of benefit to attach onself to the great master.
The credit for the rediscovery of Posada is centered most closely on the Frenchman, Jean Charlot. In the early 20's Charlot had come to Mexico armed with a formidible knowledge of relief printing and an exquisite set of large woodcuts entitled Chemin de Croix (Stations of the Cross.) He quickly began instructing those who would become the first generation of great relief printers of 20th century Mexico, including Francisco Díaz de León, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma and Fernando Leal, who would in turn teach these skills to students in the open air schools around Mexico City. At the same time Charlot would 'discover' the prints of Posada, which were still being printed and distributed, bringing them to the attention of his fellow artists and beginning the process which, over the course of several years, would result in a series of arti- cles that would assure Posada's place in history. The consequent admiration would result in many direct influences from Posada on the works of his artistic heirs.
Every Mexican organization and/or workshop, from SOTPE, "30-30" and the LEAR to the Taller de Gráfica Popular, knew that one of their best chances of success in promulgating their messages would come through emulation, at least to some degree, of the format and style of the papers to which the Mexican people were accustomed.
False Starts and Lessons Learned
It is difficult to say what day the revolution ended. Would it be when the new constitution was signed in 1917? Perhaps the day thatVenustiano Carranza was sworn into office? Carranza would die at the hands of his own bodyguards at the presumed instigation of his reluctant revilu- tionary partner and erstwhile successor, Alvaro Obregon. Obregon would choose, as his prede-
cessor and successor would as well, to enforce the 1917 constitution as suited his preferences.
The Culmination of the Writers and Artist's Group in the TGP
This was particularly true where the TGP was concerned. Similarities between works from the TGP and the Vanegas Arroyo workshop (and Posada in particular) are striking. Comparison of the broadsides of Posada with volantes from the TGP show far more similarities than differences, right down to the shiny, lightweight colored papers on which both were printed. Of course that paper was similar. It was the same paper, presumably from the same makers, and provided in the same range of brilliant colors. The two examples shown above demonstrate the relative similarity between two works produced over thirty years apart; thirty crucial years in the history of Mexico. Another interesting comparison may be made between the TGP's calavera newspapers and Posada's calavera broadsines, both created each year at the time of the Dia de los Muertos. The dynamic quality of Posada's calaveras (unlike the normally static quality of Manuel Manilla's calaveras) is clearly echoed in the powerful action scenes created by the artists of the TGP for their calavera newspapers. On the following screens are examples of a Posada calavera broadside shown side by side with a TGP calavera newspaper cover image by Andrea Gómez. Both Posada's calaveras and the TGP's calavera newspapers never failed to include contemporary com- mentary of a humorously critical nature.