Early printing and book illustration

Latin America’s printing history began with the establishment of the first printing press in Mexico in 1539, when the Archbishop of Mexico City purchased a press from Europe. This was followed by a second printing press being established in Lima in 1581. Nearly eighty years later in 1660, a printing press was established in Guatemala. The rest of the Spanish colonial territory remained unexposed to printing technology as well as to printmaking until the 19th century. Therefore, Mexico has the oldest printing tradition in Latin America. Prior to the establishment of the printing press in Mexico, missionaries were distributing flyers, probably containing pictographs, designs, and text, to propagate Christianity among Native Americans. With the establishment of the printing press, the native Mexican artisans soon absorbed skills printing text and pictures from the Colonisers. In the 16th century, the majority of Mexican printed matter were books, published by the church or the Viceregal Government. These books include printed portraits of priests, viceroys, and government officials, as well as heraldic prints, maps, and topographical views. ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’ is amongst the earliest wood engravings published in Mexico in 1571. However, until the latter half of the 18th-century, relief printmaking was limited to book illustrations.

Juan Ortiz, Our Lady of the Rosary, Hand-coloured wood engraving, 1571, 42 x 30.3 cms

Revolution against Porfirio

President Porfirio Diaz Mori ascended to power in the mid-19th century by deposing the French ruler, Emperor Maximilian. Díaz was keen on developing Mexico into an industrial economy. He allocated land belonging to the underprivileged to overseas investors for industrial construction. Against this backdrop, artists Gabriel Vicente Gahona (1828-1899) and José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) produced black and white relief prints, ludicrously lampooning the bourgeoisie and the newly enacted laws of Díaz. They rejected the traditional norms of editioning, instead mass-producing their compositions on cheap newsprint paper to be distributed countrywide, including Posada’sfamous ‘Calaveras’ series. The Calaveras or skull, an important symbol in ancient Mexican culture, is associated with the Day of the Death ritual. It celebrates mortality that is inescapable and encourages one to greet Death as a friend. Posada re-contextualised this iconic symbol to express the political and social crisis of his time. Posada’s broadsheet prints became extremely popular among the common people, instilling revolutionary zeal in the illiterate Mexican people.

José Guadalupe Posada, Skeletons as artisans, Wood engraving, 12 x 19 cms

Finally, after almost thirty-one years in power, President Díaz and his government came under threat due to a civil revolt in 1910. The next ten years of Mexican history were defined by political, social, and cultural upheaval. Several open-air art schools sprung up, fostering social and cultural values in underserved regions. Relief printing became a popular form of expression for them since it was less expensive and less time-consuming as compared to other visual art mediums, and, of course, the stark contrast of binary images aided them in expressing their angst. Artists such as Francisco Diaz de Leon, Fernando Leal (1901-1964), Gabrial Fernandez Ledesma (1900-1983) were teaching printmaking in open-air art schools. Gabrial Fernandez Ledesma was an enthusiast printmaker. To reduce costs even further, he replaced the linoleum sheet with car tyres.

Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, The head of Vladimir Lenin, Linocut, 1927, 44 x 34 cms

The Communist movement in Mexico

The Partido Comunista Mexicano or PCM, was founded in the mid-20th century to uphold workers’ rights. PCM facilitated printmaking to aid education and underline the proletariat’s rights. Especially black and white relief printmaking became their tool to propagate socialist ideology amongst the working classes. Many artist groups were formed – SOTPE, LEAR, TGP were prominent amongst them. Woodcut and linocut became their medium for mass reproduction of posters, single-sheet prints, print suites, and illustrated publications. Artist Xavier Guerrero, a member of the SOTPE group executed a black and white woodcut titled ‘Oil Refinery Workers’, published in El Machete in 1924. The artist delineated the three refinery workers in crisp white gouging against a black background, highlighting the suffocating ambiance beneath the refinery.   The workers were wielding their tools as if they were weapons, signifying the revolutionary ideology of the Communists. Artist Leopoldo Mendez belonged to the TGP group. He was a linocut artist, proficient in implementing a variety of middle tones in black and white linocut.

Xavier Guerrero, Oil refinery workers, Woodcut, 1924, 18 x 12.6 cms
Leopoldo Mendez, I am Thirsty, Linocut, 1948, 30.5 x 41.3 cms

Cuban Revolution

Mexico’s revolutionary legacy inspired several other Latin American countries, Cuba being one amongst them. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro first met in Mexico City in 1955. They ultimately succeeded in taking over Cuba’s administrative power from Fulgencio Batista in 1960. During the movement, large-scale, black and white relief prints were created for putting on city walls. Few of these prints survived. ‘The Pseudo-Republic’ and ‘Revolution’ by Carmelo Gonzales Iglesias and ‘Latin America, Unite!’ by Luis Penalever Collazo are amongst them.These aremonumental black and white woodcuts, depicting Cuba’s revolutionary history. ‘The Pseudo-Republic’ by Iglesias was finished in Havana in 1960, one year after the Revolution. ‘The Pseudo-Republic’ comprised a total of seven individual blocks. Iglesias initially started with two blocks. As political events unfolded day by day, he kept adding blocks, until he reached seven. When these seven pieces were brought together, they became one comprehensive narrative. Both Iglesias and Collazo’s works are figurative, rendered in wonderful detail and graphic chiaroscuro. Collazo shows distinct skill in gouging, creating a variety of strokes in various orientations to distinguish objects, materials, and surfaces.

Carmelo Gonzales Iglesias, The Pseudo-Republic, Woodcut, 1960
Luis Penalever Collazo, Latin America, Unite!, Woodcut or Linocut, 1960

While Mexican and Cuban artists unleashed the democratic potential of relief printmaking on the masses to ignite revolutionary fervour, in Brazil, relief printmaking was employed to design book covers for String Literature or Literatura de cordel in the early 20th century. These were cheap books of poetry both printed and published by the authors themselves. In order to design the cover page and to reduce the production cost, the authors adapted woodcut techniques from the local block cutters. These cover pages often address popular imagery from folktales, local legends, etc. in black and white, delineated in bold and stylized form. With the advent of the printed cover page, the demand for these books increased in the mid-20th century. As a result, single-sheet woodcut prints began to be produced independently apart from books. Jose Francisco, José Costa Leite, Marcelo Soares, Abraao Bezerra are some of the well-known cordel artists. 

Abraao Batista, Padre Cicero E A Cura De Um Louco-1926, Woodcut, 1990

Contemporary approaches

Even today, the Latin American legacy of black and white relief printing follows the same role it has had since inception, catalysing social and political awareness in the masses. Contemporary Latin American printmakers conceive their work as a beautiful fusion of native history and modern surroundings, portrayed in narrative forms that remind us of graphic novels, posters and graffiti. Brazilian printmaker Ramon Rodrigues was born in 1982. He specialises in small scale wood engraving, printed in stark black and white contrast. His works illustrate the supernatural and death in the terrestrial world. Ramon initiates a mobile woodcut studio project to facilitate interaction between common people and printmaking. He also designs music album cover pages and bottle labels in woodcut.

Ramon Rodrigues, Disagreement, Woodcut, 2018
Ramon Rodrigues, Label design, Woodcut, 2018

Sergio Sanchez Santamaria, a Mexican-born printmaker, reinterprets the ideals of Mexican graphic art in today’s social and political context.  He brings the traditional back to life, juxtaposing iconography with elements from the modern scenario.  As mentioned earlier, death is an important moment in Mexican culture. Sergio’s woodcut ‘Covid19’ reimagines death in a more contemporary light. Death appears in his print as a rapper from the 21st century. He is laughing at the spectator, dressed in three-quarter slacks, sneakers, a peak cap, and cool sunglasses, while wielding a traditional scythe. In the background, a smiling skull rises in the sky, surrounded by stars, as in the Harry Potter movies, signifying the horrifying realities of Covid-19 across the world.

Sergio Sanchez Santamaria, Covid-19, Woodcut, 2020

Grafia Mazatl’sinspiration is deeply rooted in the realism of social, political and environmental injustice. To reach the masses, he works as a graffiti artist in public spaces, and rejects art as ‘private property.’ His choice of relief printmaking as a medium derives from this ideal. As relief printmaking is cheap and widely reproducible, Grafia transforms his graffiti into black and white linocuts and woodcuts. Grafia shows exceptional skill in gouging, improvising lines in a variety of patterns and orientations to produce a number of middle tones, distinguishing different surfaces.

Following in the footsteps of José Guadalupe Posada, modern and post-modern Latin American printmakers realise the reproductive capabilities of relief printmaking and its function in mass communication. In contrast to conventional printmaking, they eschewed exclusive editioning in favour of mass production to make arts accessible and affordable for all.

Grafia Mazatl, Graffiti in public space, 2015
Grafia Mazatl, La Victoria es Nuestra / Grabado en, Linocut, 2015


E.d Ittmann John. Mexico and modern printmaking : a revolution in the graphic arts, 1920 to 1950, Philadelphia Museum of Art. San Antonio, 2007.

Kiddy, Elizabeth, and Kristen T. Woodward. Revolutions: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching Printmaking and Latin American History. The History Teacher, vol. 46, no. 2, 2013, pp. 169–191. JSTOR, Accessed 22 July 2021.

Donahue-Wallace, Kelly. Picturing Prints in Early Modern New Spain. The Americas, vol. 64, no. 3, 2008, pp. 325–349. JSTOR, Accessed 22 July 2021.

Burke, Peter. Popular Prints in Brazil, Print Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 2, 2006, pp. 208–211. JSTOR, Accessed 22 July 2021.

By Nilanjan Das