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Madrid’s Forgotten Avant-Garde

Between Essentialism and Modernity

Silvina Schammah Gesser specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of early twentieth-century Spain. Her more recent research has focused on the role of culture and the arts during Francoism and on issues of memory, representation, and museum practices in democratic Spain. Dr. Schammah lectures at the Department of Romance and Latin American Studies and is a fellow researcher at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In the Series

Studies in Spanish History

Madrid’s Forgotten Avant-Garde explores the role played by artists and intellectuals who constructed and disseminated various competing images of national identity which polarized Spanish society prior to the Civil War. The convergence of modern and essentialist discourses and practices, especially in literature and poetry, in what is conventionally called in Spanish letters ‘The Generation of ’27’, created fissures between competing views of aesthetics and ideology that cut across political affiliation.

Silvina Schammah exposes the paradoxes facing Madrid’s cultural vanguards, as they were torn by their ambition for universality, cosmopolitanism and transcendence on the one hand and by the centripetal forces of nationalistic ideologies on the other. Taking upon themselves roles to become the disseminators and populizers of radical positions and world-views first elaborated and conducted by the young urban intelligentsia, their proposed aim of incorporating diverse identities embedded in different cultural constructions and discourse was to have very real and tragic consequences as political and intellectual lines polarized in the years prior to the Spanish Civil War.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-384-3
Hardback Price: £65.00 / $74.95
Release Date: August 2015
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-782-7
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: April 2016
Page Extent / Format: 320 pp. / 234 x 156 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface by Series Editor Tim Rees

I Dangerous Liaisons: Aesthetics, Identities and Politics
II Essentialism/Modernity
III Essentialist and Modern Imageries: An Historical Overview
IV Intellectuals, the Avant-Garde and Intelligentsia

Chapter One
Identity Crisis and Reverence for Modernity
I The Shaping of National Images
II Distressing Modernity: Miguel de Unamuno as Prophet
of Doom
III Triggering Modernity: Ortega y Gasset as Disciplined

Chapter Two
Alternative Images of Modernity
I From Imperialism to National-Socialist Catalonianism
II Noucentisme: Modernity in an Authoritarian Mode
III Bizkaitarrismo: An Essentialist Reaction to Modernity
IV The Hermes Paradox
V Unamuno and His Double

Chapter Three
Primorriverismo, an Authoritarian Undertaking
I Myths and Corporatism
II The Intellectuals’ Response: Between Proselytism and

Chapter Four
The Creation of Madrid’s Avant-Garde
I Institutional Contexts
(a) Catching Up with Modernity: The Institución Libre de Enseñanza
(b) La Residencia de Estudiantes: A Spanish “Oxbridge”
(c) El Centro de Estudios Históricos: ‘Professionalizing’ the Humanities and ‘Nationalizing’ Tradition
II Pioneers, Itineraries and Publications
(a) Ramón, L’Enfant Terrible
(b) Rafael Cansinos Assens, the Embodiment of a Literato
(c) Ortega’s Dehumanized Art Versus Neo-Popularism
(d) The Journal Circles
III Between Avant-Gardism and Hispanic Baroque
(a) Dadaist Provocation or Auto de Fe? Disquieting Images
in the Commemoration of Don Luis de Góngora

Chapter Five
The Emergence of an Urban Intelligentsia
I Competing Discourses of National Renewal
II Partnerships for Change: Down with Monarchy and Dictatorship!
III “New Romanticism” and “National Syndicalism”:
Opposites that Converge?

Chapter Six
The “People” in Rafael Alberti’s Proletarian Vision of Culture
I In Search of a Modern Spanish Identity
(a) A Vanguardist Crisis
(b) The Political Turn: The Artist as Republican?
(c) The Russian Connection
(d) The Octubre Project
(e) The Marxism of an Gaditano Poet

Chapter Seven
The “Nation” in Ernesto Giménez Caballero’s Aestheticization of Politics
I Autodidactism: The Personal Search of a Petit Bourgeois
(a) The Moroccan Experience
(b) Imperial Circuit, The Italian Connection
(c) Vanguard Techniques, Reactionary Messages
(d) La Gaceta Literaria in a Fascist Key
(e) Mythmaking and the Resurgence of the Nation



Far from being an intellectual backwater, therefore, the Madrid that is presented here was a scene of intense and passionate debates among highly committed thinkers and artists that linked aesthetic, cultural and political questions. Ideas and their intellectual authors also mattered; not just because they addressed deep issues about Spanish identity and modernity but because they were also at the heart of political conflict and, ultimately, civil war. Schammah Gesser succeeds marvellously in recapturing this world and its participants, examining the basis of their ideas and their disputes. What is also striking is their continued resonance to contemporary Spain and to the nature of ‘modernity’ in the contemporary world. From the Series Editor's Preface by Tim Rees, University of Exeter

Focusing on the inter-relationships of aesthetics, identities, and politics as they crystallized in Madrid's cultural scene from the early 1920s to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Gesser illuminates the role artistic and intellectual vanguards played in shaping the aesthetic, socio-political, and national identities that were at stake in Spain during those crucial years. She shows how artists, poets, dramatists, and intellectuals —through their writing, their journals, and their activism — fueled the central axes of debates that later polarized Spanish society in apparently unbridgeable dichotomies: such as right wing/left wing, authoritarian/democratic, religious/secular, centralist/regionalist, and bourgeois/proletariat.

Schammah Gesser offers a detailed examination of the aesthetic and political currents in the capital from the early 1920s to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Key to her argument is the tension between the simultaneous acceptance of certain essentialist notions of ‘Spanishness’ and the open embrace of modernity. In order to accomplish this feat, she adeptly employs a multidisciplinary perspective, borrowing heavily from the sociology of art, literary studies, and theories on nationalism and nation building.
Overall, this work is a significant contribution to the complex story of Spain’s political, social and cultural development in the early twentieth century, and should be welcomed by graduate students and scholars across a variety of disciplines: European intellectual history, Spanish history, art history, literary studies and cultural studies.
Reviewed by Hamilton M. Stapell, State University of New York (SUNY), New Paltz, USA, in European History Quarterly 46(4)

El trabajo de Silvina Schammah Gesser – un trabajo producto de largos años de investigación, que se reflejan en un corpus científico de 133 páginas de iluminantes notas, extensa bibliografía y esmerado índice onomástico – permite percibir la pujanza y complejidad del campo cultural, artístico e intelectual del período que va de 1898 a inicios de la década de 1930, con especial atención a las transformaciones de los años ’20.
... La autora menciona interpretaciones alternativas de los individuos y las redes intelectuales y de vanguardia, pero con agudeza analítica se posiciona y no pierde de vista el argumento central… Un libro altamente recomendado tanto para conocedores como novatos de la historia de las ideas en España y su conexión con la política moderna.
Reviewed by Luis Roniger Wake Forest University, North Carolina, USA and Prof. Emeritus, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel in Araucaria. Revista Iberoamericana de Filosofía, Política y Humanidades | Otras reseñas, Julio, 2016

Reviewed in Spanish in Iberoamerica XVI, 63, 2016 by Andrew A. Anderson
(University of Virginia, Charlottesville)

Gesser moves to recover that which has been erased from memory: her genealogy of the Madrilenian avant–garde recuperates its pre–history — the so–named Generation of 1898, forebears like the philosophers Miguel de Unamuno and José Ortega y Gasset — as well as its geographical unconscious — the Basque country, Catalonia, and Andalusia. For Gesser demystifies the notion of both the avant–garde as breaking totally with the past and the idea of Madrid as center.
... She also delves into the role played by Catholicism in Spanish culture, including its influence on avant–garde cultural production, shining light on the farthest ends of the political spectrum.
... Significantly, Gesser uses the binary ‘essentialism’/‘essentialist’//‘modernity’/‘modern’ throughout the book’s introduction, seven chapters, and conclusion as a tool to unpack the fundamental contradictions of the Madrilenian vanguard. In an important sense, this choice remains an apt one, given the felt need among the Spanish avant–gardes, during the period from the 1920s to the outbreak of civil war in 1936, to negotiate between the traditional and popular, on the one hand, and the ‘foreign’ (or cosmopolitan) and the new, on the other hand.
... All told, Madrid’s Forgotten Avant–Garde: Between Essentialism and Modernity makes a fine contribution to the fields of Spanish intellectual and cultural history. Certainly, Madrid’s Forgotten Avant–Garde imparts crucial knowledge about culture and identity in Spain before the Civil War — knowledge that would benefit advanced undergraduates and graduate students, as well as being useful for specialists — and provides for interesting and enlightening reading.
Reviewed by Renee M. Silverman, Florida International University (FIU), Miami, USA, in Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies 41(1), Article 15

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