Modernism and Its Merchandise: The Spanish Avant-Garde and Material Culture, 1920-1930
by Juli Highfill
Penn State University Press, University Park, PA, 2014
Refiguring Moderism Series
288 pp., illus. 48 b & w. Trade, $79.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
There are many reasons to read Modernism and Its Merchandise, and I think all of them are excellent.
First of all, the book is a very welcome and timely complement to the countless studies on the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It fills, thus, a gap that had become quite disturbing, as if it were only possible to examine Spain's roaring twenties through foreigners' eyes or via the life and works of Spanish artists living abroad. The material itself studied by Juli Highfill is extremely refreshing. True, most scholars and students interested in this period of Spain's no longer recent history must know Francisco Ayala, Ram—n G—mez de la Serna, Guillermo de Torre or Azorí n, to name just a few names that absolutely mattered in these years, but what do these names still refer to in the memory of today's non-specialized readers? Highfill's study, which offers a good mix of general discussions and close readings, helps make room for a renewed and, let us hope, lasting interest for these authors and their work that deserves much better than the oblivion or contempt that have become their burden. The less-known material foregrounded in the book is systematically combined with a rereading of some major figures, such as Ortega y Gasset, the influential spokesman of international Modernism that he theorized in his own way as "dehumanization", or Dalí and Buñuel, whose two cinematographic masterpieces, Le Chien Andalou and L'Âge d'or, are considered here against the backdrop of their formative Spanish years.
Secondly, Modernism and Its Merchandise is a study that is both extremely well-focused and smartly inclusive. It has a sharp and original starting point, namely the hypothesis that Spanish Modernism (the difference between Modernism and Avant-Garde does not seem to have the same importance in Spain as in other linguistic and cultural areas) is no less fascinated by the new, streamlined, seducing, commoditized, mass-produced objects than all other Western countries of that period. To this, it adds the hypothesis that is possible to study the shifting and often blurred relationship between object and subject as a key to a better understanding of what modernity actually represented. Finally, the book provides us with a selective but highly representative corpus of objects: glass (in modern still life paintings), the display of goods in shop windows, electronic devices and technologies, fashion, objects of decay (ranging from antique ruins to rotting corpses). This "object-centered" approach, made even more concrete by the exemplary iconography of the book (a pleasure for the eye as well as the mind), is then broadened by a strategy that is comparative, on the one hand, and theoretical, on the other hand.
Spanish Modernism is systematically compared to models, examples, tendencies, and evolutions in other European traditions, not only in order to show the participation of Spain to Modernism in general, but also its specific and often highly inventive contribution. The close reading of Ortega y Gasset's discussion of "glass" that emphasizes the embodied as well as social experience of a motif that French Cubism had managed to bring close to pure abstraction is a good example of such a creative interaction with foreign models, and the same applies to, for instance, the relationship between the theme of drinking, singing, and bullfighting in Ram—n G—mez de la Serna and the transformations of Amé dé e Ozenfant's work, or that between the post-Dadaist Guillermo de Torre (the often mocked brother in law of Jorge Luis Borges) and Italian Futurism.
On top of that, Highfill's study of Spanish Modernism is also enriched by a keen sense of theory. The book does not suffer from an overload of theoretical references, but the author has a perfect knowledge of all important "object theories", such as the object-thing debates around Bill Brown or the articulation theory of "system" thinkers like Bruno Latour, and each time that the interpretation of a given object or object-practice can benefit from the reference to a theoretical concept or insight, one can be sure that Highfill will always find the best way to introduce it with great elegance and clarity. In that sense, the novelty of the book does not only depend on that of its objects (and once again, please allow me to stress the many discoveries that any reader will be able to make in it), but also on that of their readings (which do always add new perspectives to the already known, the best example being here the rereading of the decay theme in relationship with both the rejection of the past and the critical attitude toward modernism's "creative destruction" in the two films by Dalí and Buñuel).
Finally, this book is also a marvelous thing to hold and to have: great design, great iconography, great writing.