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Reviewed by:
  • Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898–1939 by Maite Zubiaurre
  • Akiko Tsuchiya
Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898–1939. By Maite Zubiaurre. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012. Pp. 408. $95.00 (cloth).

The fascinating subject of Maite Zubiaurre’s book is early twentieth-century “sicaliptic” culture in Spain, which included a wide variety of genres, such as erotic kiosk novelettes and magazines, sex advice literature, nudist publications, and erotic postcards. While the literary establishment showcased the high cultural production of the Spanish male writers of the same period (1898–1939), popular erotica, which flooded the market, was all but repressed from cultural history. Cultures of the Erotic, which rescues the latter from oblivion, is the most comprehensive study to date of modern Spanish erotica and thus fills an important gap in mainstream cultural history.

Following her introduction, which situates early twentieth-century Spanish erotic culture within debates about gender, nation, and identity formation, Zubiaurre presents an overview in chapter 2 of the key developments [End Page 174] in the history of sexuality in modern Spain. Centering her discussion on sex manuals and sexological treatises published between about 1850 and 1930, Zubiaurre shows the impact that both Freudian psychoanalysis and sexological theories from abroad had on the gradual medicalization of nonheteronormative sexualities. Chapter 3 focuses on three prominent figures of “high culture”: Nobel Prize–winning physician Santiago Ramón y Cajal, endocrinologist Gregorio Marañón, and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, all of whom addressed sexuality in relation to the problems of the nation. The focus on “high-cultural sexological theory” (28) in these two chapters sets the ground for a discussion of popular cultural manifestations of sexuality in the remaining chapters.

Chapter 4 presents an intriguing discussion of early twentieth-century Spanish visual erotica and, in particular, of erotic postcards, which were produced and consumed in great numbers and became an important tool in sexual pedagogy. While the erotic postcard sought to stimulate sexual desire, Zubiaurre notes that other visual erotica, such as photographic albums of nudes and erotic vignettes, offered a more regulated sexual experience. Chapter 5 turns our attention to erotica in nudist magazines, which transformed bodies into commodities for popular consumption.

Chapter 6 explores the ways in which visual images of women with mirrors and books served to convert women into accessible commodities. Zubiaurre’s incisive analyses point rightfully to the ambiguous function of these images: while they often reify normative sexual and gender roles (promoting heterosexual marriage, domesticating female sexuality, and so on), they also have the potential to challenge heteronormativity by giving space to lesbians, transsexuals, and other “queer” subjects. Zubiaurre builds on studies of the female reader in other historical contexts to delve into the cultural meanings and anxieties behind this icon. Her conclusion, that “images are always subversive … the mere depiction of a reading woman becomes an often unintended feminist validation of a woman’s right to learn from books” (222), could be debated in light of her own analysis of the complex relationship between the gaze of the author who produces the images, the images themselves, and their consumers. The woman reader, however, especially when connected to lesbian desire, was undoubtedly an important icon of modernity that provoked anxieties in a patriarchal and heteronormative culture.

The subject of chapter 7 is the relationship between female sexuality and “imported” modernity as represented by two foreign technological artifacts: bicycles and typewriters. These artifacts, according to Zubiaurre, posed a threat to normative gender and sexual roles by allowing women physical movement, as well as imaginative freedom and creativity. Chapter 8, while treading some ground covered previously, makes a significant contribution by examining the function of “hyper-Spanish articles of clothing” (265) such as mantillas and mantones that revealed the nation’s anxiety about modernity and [End Page 175] foreign influence. When associated with women, these, along with tobacco, were transformed into allegories of the Spanish. The figure of the transvestite in “patriotic” attire, often wielding a cigarette, posed a threat to nationalist, castizo heteronormativity, thus undermining Spanish national identity. Zubiaurre’s analysis of images of “mantillas, cigarettes, and transvestites” makes the connection between sex/sexuality and nationalism starkly clear...


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pp. 174-176
Launched on MUSE
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