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  • Modernism and Its Merchandise: The Spanish Avant-Garde and Material Culture, 1920–1930 by Juli Highfill
  • Susan Larson

Spanish avant-garde, modernism, material culture, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Ramon Gomez de la Serna, Maruja Mallo, Luis Buñuel, Francisco Ayala, Guillermo de Torre, Corpus Barga, Sonia Delaunay, Azorin, Juli Highfill, Susan Larson

highfill, juli. Modernism and Its Merchandise: The Spanish Avant-Garde and Material Culture, 1920–1930. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2014. xv + 269 pp.

Deep philosophical questions, aesthetic experimentation, and radical politics all worked their way into the European historical avant-garde in ways that we are still thinking through today. Those caught in the maelstrom of European modernity were simultaneously amazed and perplexed by new technologies that facilitated greater access to industrially produced cultural forms and products. One hundred years ago, increasing numbers of urban citizens looked to cinema, radio, and the popular press to figure out how to be modern, and the acquisition of a seemingly endless stream of new products was a central part of this modernization process. New fashions, cosmetics, cameras, gramophones, typewriters, appliances—not to mention medicines and new modes of transportation and communication—would all become, as Juli Highfill argues in Modernism and Its Merchandise, intriguing objects of inquiry for Spanish writers and artists of the early twentieth century.

Highfill begins her study with a concise summary of Heidegger's etymological discussion of the history of the word "thing" (dinc in old German), which was understood as a "matter under discussion, a contested matter," which coincided with the Latin word res, meaning "that which is pertinent, that which has bearing" (2). Heidegger observed that in the Romance languages, the terms for thing (cosa, chose, coisa) come from the Latin causa, meaning a "case, topic or question," which, Highfill argues, likewise suggests a "thing at issue," something "under discussion" (3). By drawing attention to the diachronic and synchronic convergences of meaning, as well as the fact that these meanings still resonate in everyday language today, Highfill (through Heidegger) starts her book with the argument that "things" (and cosas) refer to a very broad range of objects, entities, and situations that arise as issues or as matters of primary concern. This study hinges on Highfill's assumption that "things" are inherently social, and therefore have meaning only within networks of social, material, and linguistic relations:

For the Spanish writers and artists in the early twentieth century, the new objects of commerce and technology, which had so recently transformed their social world, became intriguing objects of inquiry. They proceeded to put this merchandise to work—as metaphors, motifs, fetishes, emblems, objects of inquiry, prime examples, and props in their dramatizations of worldly encounters. In so doing, they allowed new knowledge to emerge from their artistic experiments with things. Their artistic and philosophical texts staged things as gatherings, as matters of concern, and in turn their [End Page 233] texts became things that gathered readers around them, adding still more participants to a far-reaching dialogue.


Objects, therefore, are inherently social, because they are visible and sharable. Highfill draws on the work of Elaine Scarry when she talks about artifacts as prostheses or projections of our human wants and desires, because they amplify our mental capacities and allow for movement. The things that surround us make us makers, so to speak. They may be inanimate but they make us human in that they allow us to transform our world.

Modernism and Its Merchandise is divided into three sections. The first considers the objects that most occupied the vanguardists in the 1920s, starting with the fruit bowls of still-life painting. Highfill contrasts José Ortega y Gasset's more objective, stylized, Kantian idea of taste as "dehumanization" to Ramón Gómez de la Serna's more sensual, experiential ideas about the issue. Chapter Two, "Merchandise on Display," builds on the concept of uniform, stylized display and the desire to talk about the commercial sphere. The shop window motif of three exemplary works—a print from Maruja Mallo's series Máquinas y maniquíes, Luis Buñuel's film L'Age d'Or, and Francisco Ayala's novella Cazador en el...


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