Preparation for an Exhibition: ¡Hombre!: José Guadalupe Posada

Written by Jodie Utter

This fall the Amon Carter Museum of American Art will present ¡Hombre!: José Guadalupe Posada, which includes over 50 prints made by Jose Posada (1852-1913) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.

Posada was one of the key figures in the development of modern Mexican printmaking; his contribution to cultural imagery is unrivaled. He produced an estimated 15,000 different ephemeral prints that documented every facet of Mexican life. His images, especially his calaveras (skeletons) portrayed in everyday tasks, have become icons typically associated with images for the Mexican celebration Day of the Dead.

Because the prints were meant to be read and then discarded, they were printed on poor quality paper made of wood pulp and colored with inexpensive light-sensitive dyes, thus making them very susceptible to fading and deterioration. In addition, numerous prints slated for this exhibition had serious condition problems including large tears, losses, creases, staining, and many areas that had been mended with yellowed deteriorating tapes.

1.jpg2.jpgGran baile de calaveras, 1906, before treatment (left) and after treatment (right).

This print was badly faded and had many edge losses, creases, and tears. Paper conservator, Jodie Utter had to stabilize the print before it could be safely exhibited. In addition, tears were mended, losses were filled, and creases reduced. The deteriorating tape was removed, and the remaining yellowed adhesive dissolved using solvents.

3.jpgEl Cancionero Popular, Num. 18, 1910, pre-wetted before bathing.

This print was bathed to reduce staining. The print must be pre-wetted and relaxed before it is immersed in the bath water, otherwise it will wet up unevenly and cause physical stress to the already weakened paper. I use alkaline (above pH 7) water in the bath. The raised pH rinses away discoloration products in the paper and hydrates the cellulose molecular chains in the paper. The print is placed in subsequent baths until the water runs clear. Further treatment is carried out, like mending of tears, once the print has dried.

4.jpgEl Cancionero Popular, Num. 18, 1910, during treatment, bath water with yellow staining rinsing out of print.

Repairs are made using toned Kozo fiber paper. (Kozo fiber from the mulberry plant has long fibers which make very strong thin conservation-grade paper.) The repair paper is cut slightly larger than the tear or loss, then secured using a reversible adhesive; once dry, the repairs will be trimmed and be virtually invisible.

Many of the prints had old strips of tape still attached to them. As the tape ages, the adhesive oxidizes and penetrates the paper, causing semi-translucent staining. If the adhesive in these areas are not removed, the paper will become brittle and break apart. The removal of adhesive involves solvents and suction.

5.jpgCalaveras de Gaudillos de Silla Presidencial, ca. 1890-1913, using solvent to dissolve oxidized tape.

Solvent is applied drop by drop while suction is applied to the back of the print. The suction moves the mixture of solvent and adhesive quickly through the paper onto a cotton blotter and out of the object.

6.jpg7.jpgCalavera de los carros de la limpia, 1890-1913, detail image of adhesive staining before removal (left) and after solvent and suction (right).

Treatment takes an average of 6 hours a print; but once completed the print will be safe to exhibit and to store. Because works of art on paper, especially this collection of prints, are extremely light sensitive they can be displayed only a few months and then must spend several years in storage before they are exhibited again. This is done to slow the inevitable deterioration process. Many of these prints haven’t been on exhibit since the 1970s, so take this opportunity to come see the wonderful prints of Jose Posada!