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Constantino Escalante: Caricature, Satire and the Project of Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Mexico


Mexican graphic artist Constantino Escalante published over five hundred lithographs in the satirical journal La Orquesta from 1861-1868. He caricatured Mexico City’s political figures, intellectuals, and the elite during a period in which the country traversed a series of complex political developments including the French occupation and the Liberal struggle to build an independent modernized nation. This dissertation situates Escalante’s works within the larger history of visual satire and caricature exploring the disruptive nature of Escalante’s lithographs. The prints of Honoré Daumier and Francisco Goya are considered alongside Escalante’s works as all three artists were invested in exposing the duplicity of the ruling class but also saw the promise of Enlightenment ideals and an emerging bourgeoisie in moments of national transformation.

Chapter One is a brief assessment of the evolving definitions of graphic satire and caricature. Particular theoretical approaches are introduced with the goal of establishing a working definition of caricature and visual satire. By honing in on historically specific facets of Escalante’s caricature, his interaction with art historical conventions, and the tensions and ambiguities constructed within his prints, I define his visual language as disruptive caricature. Caricature and visual satire within the political arena are often categorized as either criticism or propaganda. By contrast, I assert that Escalante deployed the power of criticism to contest the legitimacy of political factions and individuals and that he also wielded the coercive power of caricature to assert the agency of La Orquesta and Radical Liberals. The dual function of dismantling and promoting particular political and artistic ideals allowed Escalante and La Orquesta effectively to disrupt nineteenth-century Mexican politics and visual culture.

Chapter Two charts the heated battle for a free press that played out in Escalante’s prints published in La Orquesta. This chapter examines censorship, circulation, the explosion of lithographic production, and finally the intense conflicts amongst the journalists themselves. The assumption that the primary aim of caricature is to unmask some perceived essential truth is also brought into question. Rather than revealing an essentialized truth, Escalante’s prints set a whole range of perceived truths in tension in order to challenge not only the assumptions of the Mexican public but also the individuals and organizations that comprise the structures of government and journalism. Escalante’s work ultimately asks the viewer to assess what is being exposed in the process of ridiculing specific targets and their relationships with other figures and situations.

Chapter Three examines visual representations of the nation in tension with the disruptive works of Constantino Escalante. I look to Magali Carrera’s assessment that national identities were partially defined through a process of accumulating images of progress, human and organic capital, and class structures. I demonstrate that Escalante’s deployment of caricature and visual satire tends simultaneously to inhabit and shatter other genres. Prints by Casimiro Castro and photographs by the studio of Cruces y Campa provide pivotal points of comparison.

Chapter Four examines the historical development of caricature as a genre in tension with contemporaneous political and cultural developments. The exchange between Escalante and his viewers hinges upon their respective positions as participants in the events that are unfolding before them. But Escalante’s visual language is also engaged with art historical developments represented in the prints of Francisco Goya. Through early and late depictions of Benito Juárez, I examine specific historical developments including land reform, the debates surrounding the implementation of the constitution of 1857, struggles within the Liberal party, and shifting visual representations of Juárez. Goya’s El Sueño de la razon produce monstruos, Capricho 43 is examined alongside Escalante’s 1867-1868 lithographs of Juárez to further exemplify the multivalent constructions of caricature present in both artists’ works.

Chapter Five considers Escalante’s prints within the context of war and occupation. Escalante’s lithographs published in La Orquesta leading up to and during the Second Empire (1864-1867) provide a Mexican visual perspective on the conflict and France’s occupation of Mexico. Escalante’s oeuvre includes a vast array of prints depicting the struggle to establish the Second Empire, the precariousness of Maximilian’s rule, the roles of particular individuals in the attempt to solidify French rule, the disillusionment of the conservatives upon realizing that the Emperor had liberal tendencies, and finally, the defeat of the French. Escalante’s visual language adeptly registers the dramatic shifts in Mexico’s national and political struggles during this period. Escalante never abandoned what he and his fellow Radical Liberals spent decades fighting for – a modern Mexican Republic.

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