The early 20th century brought vibrant social and cultural innovations across Europe and America, especially in the realm of sexuality and Eros. These changes that took the Western world by assault did not leave Spain out. Before being squashed by the brutal censorship of the fascist Franco's regime, Spanish erotica and pornography explored forbidden pleasures, questioning and mocking moral authorities such as the Catholic church. The rich erotic culture of the period included erotic magazines, photographs, illustrations, postcards, short films, and novelettes, as well as texts on nudism and sexology. Besides being extremely rich and multifaceted, early, or vintage twentieth-century erotica in Spain was highly disinhibited in its textual and visual representations and covered all forms of "non-reproductive" love, from masturbatory practices and all forms of homosexual and queer love to ménage à trois, fellatio, cunnilingus, and zoophilia.
The Spanish erotica flourished in the period following the fall of Spain's imperialist glory in 1898, the period that many thinkers refer to as the time of subdued melancholy, but also decadence. The early 20th-century Spanish erotica, also known as sicalipsis, puts together a history of sexuality and desire that was silenced under the dictatorship of Franco between 1939 to 1975. The Spanish term “sicalíptico”, derived from Greek words sykon (vulva) and aleiptikós (arousing), initially referred to slightly erotic texts and illustrations. Over time, this term was widened in its scope and started to encompass eroticism in general, from soft to hardcore sexual representations and practices. More importantly, the term also describes an erotic invasion, a sudden proliferation of erotica at the beginning of the twentieth century in Spain. Initially influenced by Paris and its Moulin Rouge decadence, Spanish popular culture soon created its own version of perverted sexuality bringing a plethora of erotic artifacts and discourses on sex and sexuality.
In the period of an ongoing conflict between a liberal and anticlerical Spain and a conservative, Catholic and nationalist one, there was also a division between the visible high-cultural representation and the hidden one where popular erotic cultural production proliferated. This necessity for new sexual mores and ideas has cut across class and gender and filled the gap between high and low culture.
Depicting a variety of unorthodox sexual acts, Spanish erotica defied the Spanish Catholic Church's doctrine that sex should serve for procreation alone. Often portraying nuns and priests engaging in a wide range of sexual acts on consecrated ground, these images were openly and crassly anticlerical. Importing modernity from Europe, Spanish popular erotica employed foreign techno-artifacts such as bicycles and typewriters as props. Embracing foreign technology and its inventions to an extent rarely seen in high cultural art, these images combined stereotypically Spanish cultural objects with imported ones opening a dialogue between the modernity and tradition. Women were depicted wearing French stockings, riding German bicycles or using American typewriters, turning these props and their users into sex objects. Completely disregarding women's sexual needs, these materials were predominantly designed for the male population. Yet, erotic novelettes functioned as "an exercise in sexual pedagogy" in a way, creating possibilities for women to explore their own sexuality. This new techno-eros offered new visions of womanhood providing an opportunity for women to look up to their more liberated European counterparts. Since items such as bicycles and typewriters offered women freedom, mobility and the access to the public sphere, women were inspired to embrace emancipating role models such as the fearless cyclist or the liberated typist. Disempowering women through their objectification at first glance, these images sparked an accidental feminism encouraging women to explore paradigms of femininity outside the home.
Besides being bold in its cheeky representations of sexuality, Spanish erotica was also bold in terms of its aesthetics. Often employing unusual settings and compositions, these images existed somewhere in between documentary photography and pictorialism. While some of these images were crudely pornographic, other relied on the richness of the pictorial language employing a more refined aesthetics. For example, the photographer Laura Brunet modeled the human body in a way that resembles the classical sculpture. The explosion of the erotic in the Spanish mass culture inspired many illustrators and photographers of the time, including a famous photographer Antoni Espulgas. As one of the first Catalan photographers, his work in portraiture and aerial photography enjoyed great recognition. Additionally, he has produced a significant amount of nude photography which set him apart from other photographers of his time. Following these early attempts of erotic fine art photography, the genre was pushed into the mainstream opening doors for many famous icons. The collection of Spanish erotica offers an insight into anxieties present in the Spanish culture in the defiance of traditional cultural norms and the embrace of modernity and sexuality in a way that was ignored by high modernism.
Editors’ Tip: Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939 by Maite Zubiaurre
After discovering a peculiar collection of male and female nudes in an antique shop, the UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre engaged in the first academic survey of rich visual and textual representations of sexuality and the erotic in Spanish popular culture during the beginning of the twentieth century. Depicting a variety of unorthodox sex acts such as menages a trois, fellatio, cunnilingus, and zoophilia, these images presented a wealth of forgotten and suppressed materials that revealed a subversive countercurrent to the Spanish high culture of the time. The book Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939 covers erotic magazines, illustrations, photographs, stereoscopic images, "French" postcards, and pornographic short films, as well as erotic novelettes, texts and images on naturism and nudism, writings on early sexology and psychoanalysis, moral-judicial treatises and philosophical essays on sexual love.
All images used for illustrative purposes only.