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date: 19 August 2019

Mexican caricature, 1808–

  • Esther Acevedo

Type of art that exaggerates the physical characteristics of its figures for comedic or critical effect. Caricature has been used throughout the world. For more on its practice in the Western world see Caricature.

1. Journalism and pedagogy.

The first periodical released in New Spain was La Gazeta de México y Noticias de la Nueva España, founded in 1722 and directed by Juan Ignacio Castorena y Ursúa, Bishop of Yucatán (1688–1733). Six issues were produced, but the publication was suspended due to unfair criticism. In 1784, Manuel Antonio Valdez Murguía (1742–1814) resumed the work previously done by the bishop of Yucatán and expanded it with scientific news, thus strengthening the publication. As a result, the Spanish Crown granted official support to Gazeta de México in 1784, though it did not have illustrations or caricatures. The caricatures appeared on flyers that were pasted in the city centers. It is important to notice though that the concept of caricature developed slowly, and in this period the term is used to refer to the drawings that demystified royal figures and authorities through irony. In 1896, when lithography arrived, times had already changed; Mexico was independent and several newspapers circulated in the capital. For some time the diffusion of images happened through both engraving and lithography, but lithography eventually surpassed engraving as it was cheaper.

Visual news started to draw more and more interest and, by mid-century, demand had increased. Seeing places, fashions, and historical facts became a social need. The image turned into an eyewitness for everyday deeds, the memory of the faces of heroes and heroines. Popular memory started taking shape in relationship to history, thereby allowing the transmission of morals, the questioning of powers, and the discussion about the place of individuals in society.

The inclusion of caricatures in the transmission of news facilitated the pedagogical work that governors sought through education. Education was acquired in theater balconies, in patriotic celebrations on boulevards, or in the Plaza de la Constitución in Mexico City, in the nascent museums, and in the periodical press. Changing everyday habits and going from a society regulated by the church to a secular society was the main liberal challenge from Independence on.

2. Progress and modernity.

(i) Emergence in the 1820s–1850s.

Like many novelties that arrived from abroad, lithography arrived in Mexico along with modernity and progress. The technique had been created by the German G. A. Senefelder in 1796 and the multiple impressions of illustrations printed by the lithographic stone revolutionized the diffusion of images as part of the periodical press.

In 1826 the lithographic press brought by Claudio Linati was confiscated by the Mexican government—the same institution that granted him a loan to bring the machine into national territory. The only press in the city and, in fact, the only one in the country was taken to the Academia de San Carlos, the school charged with the official promotion of the arts. However, lithography did not develop in the rigorous environment of the Academia. In tune with the spirit of the age, lithography was conceived as a minor art, more aligned with the crafts and industrial production than that of intellectual creation, and was thus dismissed by all academies, not just the one in Mexico.

Since the nascent business community did not have access to the only printing press in the country—the one at the Academia de San Carlos—they made arrangements to acquire their own. In Mexico one of the first public workshops to own a lithographic printing press was that of Carlos Fournier, who joined José Severo Rocha in 1836 and started operating with a machine brought directly from Paris in 1838. Subsequently, they founded the Decaen-Baudoin association with the draftsman Federico Miahle and the Mexican Hipólito Salazar. These foreign businessmen blazed the trail for printmakers in the country.

Though lithographic workshops were at the forefront of printmaking, old professional structures persisted: learning the technique was a practical process and the hierarchical division of work persisted within the workshop. There are many examples of apprentices who accumulated capital and experience over time and opened their own workshops, like Hipólito Salazar in 1840.

Gradually, workshops started being established from the 1840s on. They produced prints for internal consumption and for export. The prints for internal consumption varied their content according to the audience and were thus cheaper than importing an original work. For export the workshops produced albums about different Mexican regions and traditions, in an attempt to convey an image of civilization, progress, and security that promoted the investment of foreign capital in a country rich in raw material but poor in industries. These works exemplified the intention of diffusing an idea of Mexican life and environment; there, the urban and mixed-race Mexican appears as a myth, displayed as the peasant or the native Indian, as “typical presences,” but not as active subjects.

The printers responsible for these titles were Ignacio Cumplido, Vicente Heredia, Julio Michaud, Manuel Murguía, Felipe Escalante, Agustín Massé, Juan Antonio Decaen, Eduardo Baudouin, Vicente García Torres, and Alfredo Labadie, who, as businessmen, remained related to the Academia; they were part of their shareholders in the biennial exhibitions and maintained commercial ties to with the institution. As members of the urban business sector, they identified themselves with the widespread culture in these exhibitions.

At the same time, publications became more aggressive in their criticism of the government. In 1829, Rafael Dávila, writing in the newspaper El Toro, mocked the Yorkinos, who were responsible for the riots at the Acordada prison, which ended with the plundering of the Parián district of Mexico City. Dávila gave voice to noblemen and attacked the Yorkinos for their populist attitudes and for surrounding themselves with lowlifes. In 1833, when the noblemen saw themselves displaced, they restarted a satire in the periodical El Mono in order to attack Anastasio Bustamante, who had joined the rebels and against the president, General Antonio López de Santa Anna.

In the periods when General Antonio López de Santa Anna left power, censorship of the press decreased and a series of caricatures appeared sporadically. In 1844, after devoting himself to the Army, Santa Anna returned to the presidency and critics focused on his government.

From 1845 on, caricatures would cease appearing sporadically. El Gallo Pitagórico, a series of satirical articles published in 1842 in the periodical El Siglo XIX, was “destined to seek and show the stigmas, the cancerous tumors that the Colony left to Independent Mexico and how they kept it immobilized.” The articles were published as a book in 1845, illustrated by the lithographers Plácido Blanco, Hesiquio Iriarte, Joaquín Heredia, and Homero—whose first name is unknown.

In several publications containing lithographs, the constant complaint from the editors was the high cost of paper and the expertise of the artists; the pressman was responsible for the import of prints that would sell in the international market for a smaller price and without paying taxes.

Don Simplicio Periódico Burlesco, Critico y Filosófico, por unos simples was launched in 1845; appearing on Wednesdays and Saturdays, it consisted of two sheets and promised to provide two woodcuts or two lithographs. Each issue cost one real and the monthly subscription, six reales, was to be paid in advance. The editor was Vicente García Torres, who also directed the Monitor Republicano. His collaborators were Guillermo Prieto (who signed himself Zancadilla), Ignacio Ramírez (el Nigromante), Manuel Payno (Conrado), and Vicente Segura (Cantárida), who from his liberal position mocked military men, the conservatives, and the clergy. His position on Santa Anna was more conciliatory, since apart from criticism, he seemed to be the only one who could lead the fight against the US Army.

The coverage of the 1847 war between the USA and Mexico illustrates two different approaches to reporting events. The Americans broadly used images to inform their readers about events. The inclusion of visual news encouraged writers of daily and weekly periodicals to seek drawings and prints so their printmakers could obtain the final images that would notify their readers about the last event. They did not use photographs so much; these were mostly used later on for portraiture. However, Mexicans were sporadic in their use of images: communicating mistakes meant increasing costs.

The political caricature also found a platform in the pages of El Calavera, a comic, political, and literary periodical that appeared in 1847. Circulating on an irregular basis—sometimes every three to four days—it promised to change its masthead at least once a month. Unlike other illustrated magazines at the time, El Calavera stood out for its ironic and critical attitude toward the war of American interference; it exposed the flaws in Santa Anna’s government, the stealing and the political opportunism. The illustrators remained anonymous and the publication was terminated on July 18, 1847 for “fostering the discussion, inciting the revolution, vilifying the court, and mocking some employees’ physical disabilities.” In the following year, when the war was already over, the same press issued El Máscara, whose pages conveyed the sorrow of losing the territories of Alta California and Nuevo México.

The periodicals with caricatures increased in number and would either support or undermine the governments in power. In August 1849, Joaquín Giménez, a Spanish citizen and itinerant writer joined the Santannistas (supporters of Santa Anna) and founded El Tío Nonilla. Occasionally printed at Navarro’s printing press, it was originally not illustrated. Giménez then acted as a writer and director. For political reasons, Giménez was expelled from Mexico, and when he returned he reestablished El Tío Nonilla. His former allies became his enemies and he favored the presidential campaign of Mariano Arista.

Another periodical that supported Arista was El Telégrafo, which appeared in 1852 when Arista’s government faced multiple problems: pillage from the so called barbaric Indians in the north, political conspiracies of conservatives and Santannistas, financial chaos, and conflicts with cutbacks in the Army. Herculano Méndez, the caricaturist at El Telégrafo, favored Arista and his decisions. Méndez’s graphic quality, hingeing on the French caricature model, was a highlight of the previous production.

French influence arrived in Mexico through the reading rooms of, for example, Isidore Derveaux, who imported L’Illustration Journal Universel. Caricatures by Cham, Honoré Daumier, J. J. Grandville, and Vernier appeared in this periodical. The Frenchman Alfredo Bablot (1827–1892) was a regular reader and also backstage director of the Telégrafo. From France, he provided Méndez with local published images, so Méndez could copy the compositional schemes, altering the figures to appear Mexican.

As Enrique Olavarría y Ferrari said in 1852 … by virtue of the tyrannical media law of 25, El Monitor Republicano, El Instructor del Pueblo, and El Telégrafo were extinct. Meanwhile, the other conservative periodicals abided by the law. El Siglo XIX was the main publication that kept up production under the reactionary regime.

The opposition press with caricatures disappeared and the critical commentary reappeared in some calendars published in 1854 and subsequent years, where some caricatures referring to the Santannista period can be found.

In 1856, Manuel Murguía started La Pata de Cabra, a daily publication opposed to the monarchical intents of the conservative party and whose pages supported new trends in caricature. Also noteworthy was Los Padres del Agua Fría, which featured profuse illustrations. It was relaunched in 1856, highly influenced by French caricature.

(ii) Consolidation in the 1860s.

The early 1860s announced the beginning of a rise in the use of caricature. This is partially explained by the end of the Three Year War (1857–1860), the liberal triumph, the exercise of freedom of speech in the previous decade, and, overall, the maturity of the apprentices of the workshops founded in the 1840s. Between 1861 and 1877, eighteen periodicals with caricatures were founded.

Political caricature was instrumental in showing citizens’ dissent regarding power. Critique happened through the use of irony; ambiguous images featured marks that clarified their meaning to a certain extent, assisting in interpretation for the readers. However, faces often remained anonymous and people needed to search for meaning in a broader historical context.

This graphic production was influenced by the language of 19th-century French caricature, whose main formal characteristics were quick delineations in form of sketches, formal distortions, and elimination of surroundings, leaving only a subdued background, mostly outlined. Urban landscape only appeared when the buildings had an emblematic meaning for the caricature’s content; the action centered in a small number of figures placed in the foreground. At times, interior representations featured divisions of several scenes, forming an anecdote. The characteristic line was quick, also used to endow forms with naturalism—in spite of the sought after distortion. It is the use of line which marks this new form of making caricature. Finally, everything hinted at a language simplification, in favor of an organizing device, and from an ironic standpoint.

The print shops where the lithographs were printed for some periodicals depended on lithographic houses for the production of caricatures that were flyers inserted in periodicals produced by other workshops. Four of them concentrated the caricature production in this period and belonged to Manuel Castro, Nabor Chávez, Hesiquio Iriarte, and Francisco Díaz de León. Castro’s workshop issued the publications Guillermo Tell (1861), El Títere (1861), La Orquesta (1861–1863), El Buscapié (1865), and Don Folias (1865). Nabor Chávez’s workshop printed El Títere (1861), Fray Trápala (1862), El Boquiflojo (1869–1870), Fra Diávolo (1869), and El Jarocho (1869). Hesiquio Iriarte directed La Orquesta (1863–1870), when Francisco Díaz de León replaced him.

The artists who practiced caricature in these years did not have formal training in the Academia de San Carlos. Only Melchor Chávez attended it as a regular student for just one year, taking engraving classes. Although some of them, like Constantino Escalante and Melchor Álvarez, got to show their works on easels in the biennial exhibitions at the Academia, as guest artists at the institution, from the beginning, caricature did not belong in an academy.

Other caricaturists, like José María Villasana, Jesús Alamilla (1847–1881), Santiago Hernández (1833–1908), Herculaneo Méndez, Palomo, Padilla, Moctezuma, Gaitán, Muhler, Cárdenas, Tenorio, and Obregón remained completely isolated from the subjects in the academic system. The periodicals that published their works severely criticized the Academia’s stern educational methods and, additionally, they were opposed to having different areas in the institution, like painting, scuplture, architecture, and engraving in the hands of foreigners.

One can generally say that the caricaturists remained somewhat distant from the Academia. Their objectives were different. The Academia, in turn, fostered a kind of art focused on consolidating traditional values, while caricature questioned the application of reforms proposed by liberals and, in fact, exhibited conflicts of interest among the many groups in power.

3. Sponsorship.

(i) Political background.

Political caricature developed from 1861, in tandem with the incipient consolidation of liberalism. The period from 1821 to 1854 represented a transitional step in which, essentially, economic and social structures stemming from the colonial system persisted, though some changes proposed by different liberal and conservative projects took place. These tendencies came about with the objectives of nationalism, democracy, free enterprise, and the separation between state and church—all in the name of progress and modernity.

While the conservative projects tended to form a slow developing internal market, in contrast, the liberals aimed to insert Mexican commerce in the international market in order to achieve faster development. From the consolidation of the conservative party in 1849, the conflicts between conservatives and liberals represented the dispute between bourgeois groups, whose main center of political struggle was Mexico City.

For the liberals, it was clear that there could be no State while economic, political, and social power remained in the hands of the church—the only institution to have established an economic structure of national scale during the colonial period. Therefore, the 1857 Constitution, a liberal product, undermined the clergy’s economic power by confiscating church assets as well as suppressing religious votes (clauses 13 and 27), while reducing its moral authority by limiting its operations, such as making education free and managing other services, such as birth certificates, marriages, and funerals (clauses 3, 5, and 123).

Among its goals, the liberal political project defined the achievement of popular sovereignty, the balance between legislative and executive powers, and the underpinning of a modern secular State. The formulation of these measures or their critique was diffused by periodicals, which also acted as means to educate, inform, and politicize a social minority consisting of an urban population of readers. Through images, caricaturists working in different periodicals disputed, confirmed, or proposed alternatives according to the liberal party division to which they were affiliated.

During the Second Empire, however, the conservative periodical Santa Clara—broadly studied by Helia Bonilla—came about. Founded by Miguel Piña, it stood in defense of Catholicism. In Piña’s opinion, the empire continued undermining clergy, so the periodical proposed to undercut the image of the liberal politician Benito Juárez (1806–1872) and the liberal media. Miguel Piña was a soldier who fought with the conservative leader Félix Zuloaga in the Three Year War, where Piña earned certain notoriety and received the general command of the District of Mexico. Miguel Miramón, the conservative president, appointed him as the political and military chief of Tehuacán.

By then, the media had become the fourth power—a space to place candidates and defend their relatives. At the same time, it was a means to ascend to power; the life histories of some deputies show that originally they were writers in some periodicals in both the capital or the provinces.

(ii) The pursuit of authenticity in Mexican caricature: some characteristics

Mexican caricature aimed—in spite of the European influence—to be unique and create its own characteristics. As such, it used a combination of symbolic forms and the tradition of national history, based both on idioms and Mexican songs to build a dialogue with the readers. Barely anyone had explored national idioms like they did; Mexican was a resource that writers used to build a national consciousness in order to foster the kind of society they wanted. Writers like Vicente Riva Palacio and Manuel Payno were, at the same time, collaborators and editors of liberal periodicals and on several occasions held important positions in different governments.

The first characteristic noticeable in periodicals with political caricatures is their frequency, which was not daily but weekly, biweekly, and sometimes triweekly, in addition to being short-lived. Only three periodicals survived for more than four years: La Orquesta (sixteen years), El Padre Cobos (seven), and El Ahuizote (four); six periodicals lasted for two years: San Baltazar, El Boquiflojo, La Madre Celestina, La Carabina de Ambrosio, Juan Diego, and La Tarántula, while the remaining thirty-two barely lasted one year.

The periodicals consciously intended to influence public opinion, but their contribution was undermined by external factors, such as lack of media, high costs of transportation and the post office, illiteracy, and the periodical’s elevated cost.

Some chronicles from that time show the places where the periodicals were produced. Copies of popular issues were hung on the walls, together with photos they bought or received and the caricatures that writers surely collected and criticized in their publications. The list of positions in the production cycle was long: the typesetter, the regent, the printing-press owner, the journalist, the editor in chief, the press operator, and the delivery man. The relationship between caricaturists and editors varied from one publication to another and their minimal story comes from the press itself; rival periodicals made caricaturists available to the editor, and in turn, with the ones “at home,” they boasted about the independent character of the medium.

4. Women in caricature.

Women were not represented by caricaturists, since they were not part of the political world ruled by men. Not even as heroines of the Independence did they gain recognition. Only during porfiriato (the period of the presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1877–1911)) were the first monuments to Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez (1768–1829) erected. The conception the liberal media had of women—published in an ironic tone in more than one of its columns—coincided with the traditional position of the holy mission, that is, of women destitute of glory but imbued with sweet and chaste emotions. When referring to the daughters of Eve, La Orquesta said that “They have to meddle in everything, now they want to interfere with electoral issues; Now a woman, through our colleague La Paz intends, like half Mexico does, to find a seat in the government!” The use of female imagery in caricature is thus reduced to allegories; these images are based on the pictorial tradition of showing women as allegorical figures representing the people, the motherland, the constitution, the arts, and virtues or vices.

5. The Republic is restored.

President Benito Juárez was acclaimed in 1861 and appeared profusely in caricatures that almost seemed portraits. He was harshly criticized by the end of war against France in 1867. In sum, the cause was that he surrounded himself with the same power group that the people in Paso del Norte followed, preventing the entry of young generals who had fought against the French; the second complaint was the four elections campaigns in which he ran for presidency, which put him in power. During the brief period of the fourth election, he was daily and ingeniously portrayed by several caricaturists.

The political situation of different factions in the liberal party after the inauguration of President Sebastián Lerdo, elected in December 1872, became complex because many people aspired to political posts and felt they deserved them. The lerdistas expected a cabinet reshuffle in their favor, which did not happen. The porfiristas had received an amnesty for their part in the upheaval and everybody wanted a part of the money. In this situation, San Baltazar proposed Porfirio Díaz as candidate for the presidency of the Supreme Court of Justice. The elections in February 1873 “largely favored José M. Iglesias, with a total of 5488; in second place was Vicente Riva Palacio, with 1078, and Díaz with 962.” El Padre Cobos attained almost completely to the indictment of the movements of president Lerdo. On October 6, 1877, when Porfirio Díaz was already president, the media favoring Lerdo had not yet settled down; El Ahuizote, one of the periodicals more engaged in their struggle against Lerdo remained active.

Artists Jesús T. Alamilla, Alejandro Casarín, and José María Villasana, who had remained in the opposition as part of the political project that supported Porfirio Díaz, seemed, in the eyes of the increasingly few oppositionists, to have become “ministerial.” Alamilla soon left for the United States, where he fell ill and then in 1881 he died in Mexico. Casarín had a long career in the arts and remained linked to the Mexican Army until 1892. Once found in Baltimore, he was released from the Mexican Army, where he was lieutenant colonel. He then resorted to president Díaz to remain in such “noble institution.” He lived and worked in New York, where he died in 1907. With Díaz’s direct support, José María Villasana published México Gráfico in Chicago, in 1893. In 1896, he was appointed deputy in the eighteenth term, representing the district of Comitán Chiapas. Santiago Hernández would retake the oppositionist pencil in El Hijo del Ahuizote.

The situation for the production of periodicals had changed. In the beginning of porfiriato, printmakers like Ireneo Paz already had their machinery—both typographic and lithographic—thus the periodicals were no longer a craft. From 1877 on, Ireneo Paz published La Patria, which received its rich content by telegraph and had a broad range of ads. The positions in power redefined and the models for caricatures started to mirror the American ones, featuring a comic-strip style. Also, the French and Spanish influence that had once influenced caricature after 1847 started to disappear. Caricature introduced doubt and criticism as elements of knowledge to the readers’ everyday lives.


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