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Half a century before Pedro Almodóvar was born, Spain enjoyed as much excess and explicit sexuality as his daring films, for a post-Franco generation, celebrated. Contrary to the usual division of Spanish culture into conservative and liberal factions, portending the tensions which would erupt into civil war in 1936, Maite Zubiaurre charts a third path. She conveys the erotic productions, whether clandestine or popular, of sicalipsis, a peculiarly Iberian coinage of candid creation and cocky consumption.


High and low culture, left- or right-wing: early 20th century Spain revealed herself to be more adventurous and sophisticated than scholars have dared to acknowledge.


cover art

Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939

Maite Zubiaurre

(Vanderbilt University Press; US: Apr 2012)

Nationalistic, Catholic, and uneasy Spain tended, however, to fear the rest of Europe. Its women seemed—in official versions—less charged and more circumspect, compared to say, well, France. Hypersexual and alluring females, males (and those in-between) presented opportunities for Spanish adventurers to embark on foreign affairs—even if conducted vicariously by gawking at typists, cyclists, nudists, risque postcards, or medical manuals.


UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre sums up the distinctive appeal of this giddy period, as it “engages modernity and its commodities in an intense and often ambivalent dialogue with traditions and with the production of stereotypically Spanish cultural objects: Spanish majas wearing traditional peinetas made-in-Spain enhance their legs with imported French stockings; dark Spanish beauties leave Andalusia to sit in front of American typewriters in an office in Barcelona or Madrid; sexy middle-class señoritas speed away on German bicycles.”


Dr. Zubiaurre uncovers a treasure trove of tucked-away items, cataloguing the varieties of sexual experience, imagined and real, depicted and documented, of a counter-current to orthodoxy. For instance, Hildegart Rodríguez, a socialist prodigy—before she met an early end at the hands of a jealous mother envious that her daughter had fallen in love—corresponded with Havelock Ellis. This pioneering sexologist had his work banned in his native Britain, yet it found a ready audience in Spanish translation. Ellis welcomed the response, and wrote a bestselling account of Spain.


Meanwhile, as Rodríguez and her parents preached eugenics to progressives in their homeland, Freud’s psychoanalysis exited as soon as it arrived. Suspected not only by Ellis but by his Spanish hosts for its Protestant, Jewish, and capitalist associations, the imported theory withered while other sexologists met with a warmer reception in the early 20th century. Spain tended, left or right, to look after its own interests before embracing trends from the Continent. Anarchists, freethinkers, and intellectuals advanced what they perceived as scientific progress, while sustaining antisemitic and xenophobic reactions to another form of imperialism, in the judgment of many smart Spaniards. 


Even intellectuals such as philosopher José Ortega y Gasset succumbed. Progressives preached to women as often as did clerics and doctors. A section on “amatory elitisms” documents how assiduously Ortega and other leading writers feared sex and women, despite their strenuous attempts and literary flourishes to overcome the barrier between those who tried to forge a “black Spain” out of proto-fascist tendencies and those who hammered out a “green Spain” closer to the Red ideal.


Both reds and anarchists, clerics and parishioners may have demanded a pocket-sized diversion, however under the counter or outside the confessional. Affordable and portable, postcards satisfied this demand. “Desire spoke an erotic lingua franca that ignored national borders, social differences, and levels of education.” Zubiaurre contends cheap and discreet “cartomania” entered houses all over the Western world, and taught people a more open-minded way to learn love, the other-side-of-the-Pyrenees-style. She finds postcards that cannot hide their saucy scenes from the gaze. They eschew the subterfuge of “artistic portfolios” of photographs or engravings for a more genteel connoisseur. They force viewers “to relinquish puerile hypocrisy and maturely confront their own multifaceted sexuality.” Lesbians, dogs, dancers, dreamers, and fleas all feature in some of the examples archived by Zubiaurre in this hefty, densely printed and well-illustrated book—and at its companion website.


This literary historian alternates in both media between academic jargon and accessible prose. The promotional material and dust jacket copy frames the contents as if practically spilling out of a forgotten photo album in a Madrid antiquarian’s shop. The reality attests to the more exacting analysis worthy of scholarship. So, parts of this treatise will not titillate the casual reader or peeper. It’s aimed at an academic audience, and its price will likely keep it off the shelves of the idly curious.


The scholar favors close readings of her source material, drawn from attentive research. For instance, she notes, when scrutinizing a series of heterosexual vs. lesbian sequences, how the former follows an expected pattern of foreplay, while the latter appears chaotic. Postcards could, after all, be shuffled, unlike photos in books. Postcards’ organic possibilities beckon viewers into a performative power of the spectator turned participant in his or her own diversion.


Nudists and bathers parallel this popular appeal, but unlike on many Spanish postcards, men disrobed along with the women. Homosexual and hypermasculine poses appeared, and in a sunny, coastal nation, this lifestyle enticed those drawn to vegetarianism, holistic medicine, and perhaps anarchism or fascism. The caricature of this earnest movement exaggerated its libertine appeal. The reality tended towards austerity, sobriety, and hygiene in the pursuit of a spiritual and social control of one’s urges, not their satiation.


Zubiaurre interrupts this idyll. “Nudism advertises nature but depicts civilization. It worships sunlight but cannot do without the bright artificial lights of the studio.” As with all the commodified products of erotic mass consumption, it needs technology to saturate its eager market. Darker skin carries, for a country near Africa, its own connotations, and even if Spain has lost most of its empire in the year this book begins, it has not abandoned its nostalgia for its long imperial reach and reign.


Anthropological and ideological complications arise, as the scholar sternly investigates the myths emerging in the archived version of ideal bodies, perfect families, and natural icons of beauty and power. Their German and Aryan models loom over the Catalan coastal resorts for Spanish bourgeoisie. Bathers, invariably females, perch before turbulent waves, striking awkward poses.


Similarly, women and girls carry their books back from the seaside to their boudoirs. The moment of sexual revelation, frozen before a mirror as the reader looks up at her own reflection, invites that of the viewer. Zubiaurre proposes that such a moment of immobility tries to capture eros outside of its inevitable chronology, in the act or the fantasy. Mirrors reflect, of course, and they repeat the admired image. (Jorge Luis Borges’ line from a story springs to my mind: “mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.”)


The books girls and women run their fingers through are meant to instruct and discipline; they also are meant to seduce and enchant them. This double nature of solitary reading, as feminist responses to these displays indicate, duplicate this idea and throw it back upon itself—is gazing at a postcard or a mirror’s coquette real, or imaginary?


Playing off Borges’ phrase, how does the image in the age of reproduction serve as playmate or coupled mate?  Lascivious bookplates only complicate this pairing. Small wonder Zubiaurre locates in voluminous retrievals from her discoveries dozens of examples of lesbian temptation and masturbatory submission. Within the nation’s Catholic culture, such sensitive confessions tease the conventional wisdom, warning of a dangerous absorption in reading in a room of one’s own, a diversion leading innocents into the adjacent zone of self-pleasure, as the “solitary vice.” If women learn about their embodied energy from books, they also put their lessons of empowerment to work.


Mechanical methods of artistic reproduction depended on typewriters, and many women chose this occupation. Secretaries, if we can judge from Spanish advertising, posed near their desk in short skirts and sheer or black stockings, imported from France. Perhaps they arrived on German-made bicycles. Susan B. Anthony boasted that the bike emancipated women more than any other cause.


During the apex of these decades of suffragettes rushing into offices, enflamed by “techno-eros”, Zubiaurre wryly notes both riders and typists “invariably fall” off their seats. Often, leggy and sportive women appear to be considerably disarranged in their clothing. So the pictorial evidence would lead Spanish readers to believe. Sicalipsis, she estimates, loves female immobility, but it must tantalize with the illusion of movement, however vainly caught on camera or in print. “In both cases, anxious men afraid of liberated women use the sicaliptic blender to mix warm flesh with cold iron—a simple recipe that never fails to eroticize and thus immobilize the female body and spirit.”


The necessary and ensuing stupor might have been blamed on “patriotic sex: mantillas, cigarettes,and transvestites.” The professor titles a chapter expounding how Spain tried to resist “foreign, modern sex.”  Not all flint-eyed, dusky or fair Spanish maidens typed or rode. They might remain veiled in traditional mantles, scantily adorning their barely lace-covered bodies with red carnations and pitch-black coiffures. Feminism, contraception, and foreign influences threatened Spanish purity, even if anticlerical and anti-royalist cartoons featured insatiable women of the realm engaged in sordid practices within the safety of church and state-sanctioned quarters.


This complicated reaction to the erotic power within the Spanish kingdom demonstrated how women channeled their own natural force, without borders to blame for their loyal forms of submission, as it were, to nationalist icons of priest, monarch, or purportedly donkey. Clad in national garb or foreign fashion, flappers, nymphets, and gypsies puff away, on the other hand, devoted to another solitary vice. Cross-dressers, then, sidle in, as cigarettes connote post-coital languor, exotic Moorish Andalusia, and what Havelock Ellis popularized by the term “inversion”.


Fiction diligently promoted all these stereotypes. “Industrial pornography” sounds like what Orwell’s Ministry of Truth pumped out for the proles in 1984, yet this genre found a wide audience in ‘20s Spain. Along with the success of rising literacy and demands for high-culture short novels, appeals to the rawer sensibilities of readers found a ready market paralleling that of nudist and sex-advice literature, not to mention visual erotica. Hysteria, post-Freudian distortions, homosexuality, and vampires predictably come to light in Zubiaurre’s investigation of “non-normative” sexuality and abundant ambiguity.


The transfer of such narratives to the new technology of “filmic eros” suffered comparatively harsher restrictions—outside royal or intellectual circles. The last chapter shuts the storyline down with few hints of the outbreak of civil war that pitted anarchist against monarchist, nationalist against fascist. This conclusion would have benefited from an explanation of the transformation of the erotic under the stress of war, but the book rapidly ends—even before the war seems to start, despite the titular span of dates.


One does not gain a strong sense of how the civil war itself took any impetus from suppressing or exulting in the erotic culture, let alone how it would have been destroyed so quickly—if it was entrenched so deeply if surreptitiously across ideological cohorts. However, a few decades on, it merits mention for audiences in other nations who may relate. In the waning years under the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, busloads of his citizens crossed the French border to view Emmanuelle or Last Tango in Paris. Did they recall their stashes of spicy postcards from days gone by?


Demarcations which outside Spain may fall on right-left lines, in Spain find more divergent paths. Liberal thinkers may often have been sexual conservatives, according to this professor. Luis Buñuel was well-known in his exile from Spain’s repressive regime, but in his youth, he beat up pederasts, notes Zubiaurre, and helped “repress the Orientalist ethos” deplored by some of his intellectual compatriots. She notes how “tolerant” writers and artists who shared conservative views on sex tended to be remembered even by the Francoist keepers of the Spanish legacy, while liberals in tems of sexuality were (unsurprisingly) written out of the “official” history.


The silence, long imposed after the war that followed the closing date of this study, has echoed within the “classic divide between liberal and conservative Spain” that this very work seeks to upend. Zubiaurre concludes with only a terse comment that this erotic culture “disappeared overnight.” One wonders how these documents were preserved for decades under clerico-fascism. One muses who savored them once, and who then saved them. The youths who consumed the books and pored over the photos are likely near death, if not already gone. One closes this impressively detailed volume wondering what stories they might have told about body and spirit—liberated before communists, anarchists, socialists and fascists battled to call the Spanish back from naughty postcards and nudist camps—to bloody duty.


Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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