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Bullfighting: A Troubled History by Elizabeth Hardouin-Fugier (review)

From: Hispanófila
Volume 168, Mayo 2013
pp. 147-149 | 10.1353/hsf.2013.0024

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So much has been already written about the ancient art of bullfighting, but in the last couple of years the issue has transcended the cultural scope to include the economic and political differences of the regions in Spain. Elizabeth Hardouin-Fugier echoes this trend and offers in Bullfighting: A Troubled History a very comprehensive study (although biased and often subjective) of the origins and evolution of bullfighting, not only in Spain but also in Latin America and France. As the title suggests, the book follows a chronological order where the information is presented in a thorough and enjoyable way.

Chapters 1 and 2 take the reader several centuries back, when men hunted wild animals for survival, and explain how this activity developed into a sport and pastime as humans became sedentary and "the killing of bulls for entertainment mimicked an ancient hunt, with lances... " (9). Therefore, according to Hardouin-Fugier, the maltreatment of animals increased and the notion of game completely disappeared. Thus, the hunt, become a morbid show very much resembling public executions, "without a slow death, there was no spectacle" (41). What's more, the author quotes artists and novelists such as Francisco de Goya and Ernest Hemingway, both passionate bullfighting aficionados, to make her point against this tradition by re-interpreting their ideas and stating that crucifixion and bullfighting are two very similar practices.

The next chapter concentrates on the physical location of bullfights, the plazas and bullrings, and how since its origin this spectacle took place in public squares temporarily-closed where spectators had to pay a fee to enter. Due to its popularity, these enclosed buildings became permanent, turned into circular structures made of stone reflecting the architectural tendencies of the time, and thus acquiring artistic value.

Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate on the foreign perception of bullfighting in Spain and Latin America by discussing some radical differences between the former empire and its colonies. In the past, many disregarded the South American "bull games" as truly Spanish bullfighting because of the use of a lasso and its resemblance to a carnival where the bull was previously harmed before entering the bullring. Bullfighting was even "adapted" by the Indians who, during the XVIII century, used it to execute their prisoners "by shifting the cruelty inflicted on the bulls in the corrida onto the men they hated" (73-4). On the other hand, the French Romantic movement inadvertently contributed to spur the interest in this Hispanic tradition. The horrors of the French revolutionary wars inspired the works of writers such as Prosper Mérimée with his opera Carmen and Alexandre Dumas who were inherently drawn to the violence and death that bullfighting represented.

The effect of bullfighting in the Arts is precisely the focus of the Chapters 6 and 8. It is interesting to note that by the end of the XVIII century bullfighting had originated its own kind of illustrators who were solely in charge of creating the posters for the events. These were often considered genuine works of art. What's more, in France bullfighting became the key subject of engravers rather than painters, as engraving served better to express the emotions and movements of the corrida. Veracity was not, however, the main goal of literature when portraying the deeds of bullfighters during the XX century. Hardouin-Fugier notes that more often than not writers "strayed so far from reality as to abandon it entirely, creating a completely different, imaginary spectacle" (129). The last step on the gradual infatuation with bullfighting was represented by movies and documentaries that contributed to epitomize the brave matadors as semi-gods. This was partly due to the works done by the Lumière Brothers, Thomas Alva Edison, León Gaumont and others who were attracted by this brutish albeit enthralling performance.

Therefore, it is not surprising that by the beginning of the XX century Spain was the only country in Europe where the interest in bullfighting not only had increased but also had become a true "national entertainment". This fact was symbolized by the number of bullrings built over a period of fifty years all over the country. This is the focus of interest of Chapter 7...



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