Artist José Guadalupe Posada’s graphic legacy is as recognizable today as it was in turn-of-the-century Mexico, and his distinctive skeleton print calaveras have become synonymous with the traditional Day of the Dead celebration, which is November 1.
Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portugese at The University of Texas at Austin, gives an overview of the traditions behind the Day of the Dead:
There were nine levels in the Mesoamerican afterlife. Tlalocan was a paradise reserved for those who died of contagious diseases, while those who died in war walked with the sun to the zenith. The relatives of these dead would lay offerings near their bodies so they could accomplish this task. These offerings would be left for four years, until the dead transformed into hummingbirds and began to nourish themselves by drinking the nectar of local flowers. The final—and darkest—level was called Mictlan, the place of no return. To reach this place, the dead would have to journey for four years.
Relatives would place offerings of food and leave the tools for working in the same job the dead had used in their jobs in life. In this sense death was then an endless cycle of traversing, going through different dimensions of existence. Offerings were the main resource that allowed the dead to reach the next level in their journey beyond the grave. There were particular different dates in the year to honor one or another group of dead, a religious calendar that was completely altered after the Christianization of America.
These offerings survive as a result of the syncretic religions that were established during the Spanish Conquest. Today, offerings to the dead are made on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) of the Christian calendar.
In rural areas of Mesoamerica, November 1 is dedicated to dead infants (which in pre-Columbian times was celebrated in August), while November 2 is dedicated to dead adults. In many areas leaving an offering for deceased loved ones is a dutifully fulfilled obligation. Family comes together, bringing the dead to the reunion through nostalgic conversations.
The Day of the Dead is the day of filial love, but it is also the day of celebrating the harvest in the agricultural calendar. November is the month of bountiful harvest, and generously sharing food is the most sincere expression of gratitude. The altar of the dead is then a cornucopia of fruits, flowers, candies, drinks, and the most precious objects of beloved family members. The colorful ornaments, the saints of family devotion, the elaborate cooking, and even the delicate sugar skulls make death not a terrible image, but the core of human communion.
Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Julia Margaret Cameron did not take up photography until she was 48 and the last of her children had left for college. Over the next 14 years she made over 1,200 images. She promoted her photography as fine art through sales and exhibitions, once writing that her passion was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” Cameron was more artistically ambitious than her predecessors, and the bulk of her work consists of allegorical, mythological, literary, and Biblical illustrations, using as models friends, friends of friends, neighbors, family, and servants.
Cameron’s technique also distinguished her from her peers. By using a lens with a short focal length, she produced images in which only a small region of the sitter’s face would be in focus. Although this technique evolved from her early, awkward attempts at mastering photographic technique, she embraced and exploited this style for maximum expressive effect.
This was a controversial decision, however, as many critics felt she was turning her back on photography’s unique ability to capture detail. H. P. Robinson, her art photographer colleague and competitor, was blistering in his criticism, writing, “It is not the mission of photography to produce smudges. If studies in light and shade only are required, let them be done in pigment or charcoal, with a mop, if necessary, but photography is pre-eminently the art of definition, and when art departs from its function it is lost.”
T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895
The tableau vivant, or “living picture,” was one of the most popular forms of amateur performance and entertainment for the middle and upper classes during the nineteenth century. Tableaux required performers, dressed in suitable costumes, to arrange themselves in imitation of a literary or historical character, scene, or work of art. Tableaux were performed both privately and publicly, in venues ranging from aristocratic drawing-rooms for invited guests to large public theaters in front of a paying audience.
The Victorians’ interest in tableaux vivants carried into the popular imagery of the day. Commercial photographers who predominantly spent their time taking portrait photographs would, on occasion, produce genre-type scenes and other narrative images.
These types of images were most commonly produced as stereographs, which were collected by the thousands by Victorian households. These images were also issued in larger sizes, such as this one by T. A. Rust. It is unlikely that this photograph documents actual tableaux performed for an audience, as other photos in the exhibition with identical backdrops and floors would indicate that these were taken in Rust’s photographic studio.
“The Game of Life” is a moralizing tale of human existence, yet its humor playfully undermines the seriousness of its theme.
Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861
Albumen combination print from three negatives
H. P. Robinson was one of the most prolific and vocal proponents of art photography in nineteenth-century Britain. One of his first attempts to link photography with literature was Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.” In the poem, a lady is sequestered in a tower on an island near Camelot. She is forbidden to look directly outside, so she can only see the world through its reflection in a mirror. When Lancelot passes by one day, the temptation is too great and she looks directly out the window. A curse falls upon her, and she climbs into a boat, lies down, and sings to her death. This work was to become the most pivotal of Robinson’s career.
Robinson’s Shalott declared early in the medium’s history that photography could illustrate and interpret poetry, that is the imaginary. Critics felt otherwise, saying that the subject was beyond the appropriate boundaries for photography. After the negative reception to this work, Robinson vowed to stick to themes of “the life of our day,” and the rest of his career is dominated by genre themes, as is represented in his other photographs in this exhibition. Robinson’s photograph was also controversial because of his technique of combining multiple negatives to form the composition. Robinson and his supporters argued that any means should be available to a photographer in making a work of art (it was the final product that mattered, they argued, not the manner in achieving it). The majority of critics, however, argued that photography’s chief asset was its unique capability to accurately depict nature.
For these critics, slight-of-hand techniques such as combination printing were deceitful and inappropriate. Although Victorian England often embraced the blending of fiction with truth, it did not always approve of this approach when applied to photography.
Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856
Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)
Printer, publisher, and photographer Joseph Cundall produced some of the most attractive popular illustrated books of the 1850s and ’60s, as well as several important early photographic publications. He was a founding member of the Photographic Society of London and, in 1871, was sent by the British government to Bayeux to organize the first photographic record of the famous tapestry.
The Photographic Exchange Club, which published the album containing this photo, was a club comprised of amateur photography enthusiasts who promoted the technological development of photography by trading prints. Each image in the album is accompanied by detailed information regarding its process and chemistry.
In 1856, on the instructions of Queen Victoria, Cundall took photographs of these soldier heroes, newly returned from the Crimea.
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Letter from Grace Hall Hemingway to Ernest Hemingway, July 24, 1920, “handed to him on 27 July 1920.”
Hemingway (1899-1961) was 21 years old when his mother wrote him this letter (one page of her hand-written copy is shown) telling him that he was overdrawn in the bank account of his mother’s love. He had returned the year before from the war in Europe after having been wounded and decorated for valor by Italy. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. Read more
The exhibition Felix Topolski: Portraits of Britain’s Twentieth-Century Literary Greats, runs through December 31, 2006.
The Ransom Center acquired Topolski’s full-length portrait of George Bernard Shaw in 1960 and shortly thereafter commissioned the artist to paint a portrait series of great living British writers and playwrights. The commission of “Twenty Greats” eventually included the portraits of W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Ivy Compton-Burnett, T. S. Eliot, William Empson, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNiece, John Osborne, J. B. Priestley, Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell, C. P. Snow, Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West, John Whiting, Arnold Wesker, and Shelagh Delaney. This exhibition brings together, for the first time, all 20 stunning and controversial paintings from the original commission. Read more