So many modernists artists of Federico García Lorca’s time fled to Paris from their home countries that I have to ask: Why didn’t Lorca go to France? Why did he stay in the more provincial and conservative world of Spain, a decision that cost him his life? Waves of Lorca’s compatriot Spanish artists gathered in the French capital, then the international center of modern art.
|Federico García Lorca
In the Cubist era, Pablo Picasso went to work in the Paris as early as 1904[i] and Juan Gris left Spain for the French capital two years later.[ii] The Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró began painting in Paris in 1920.[iii] Lorca’s friends and dorm-mates at the famous Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, both left Spain to work in Paris in the late 1920s. Dalí, who was Lorca’s closest friend at the time, seems as if he would have blazed the trail to France for Lorca if anyone would have.
But Lorca never went to live in Paris, despite the artistic climate receptive to innovative styles, and despite the fact that Lorca often felt stifled and even endangered by Spain’s cultural climate. That right-wing streak in Spanish politics ultimately resulted in Lorca’s murder during the fascist coup that finally overthrew the Spanish Republic. What made Lorca remain in Spain? Is his writing different from the modernism of the writers and artists who did congregate in France?
The Paris art world in the 1930s was friendly to Surrealism and to Lorca’s project of rooting poetry in dreamlike imagery, while Spain was still locked in a battle between a reactionary church/state alliance and the growing republican movement. But Lorca remained to write in Spain partly because of his close ties to his large family, and partly because he rooted his art deeply in Spanish culture and in his native province of Andalusia. Lorca’s regional identification fought with the agenda of the artists who had taken refuge in Paris and other major capitals. He actively resisted the internationalism sweeping through modern art in his time.
In early twentieth century architecture, for instance, this internationalism was right at the top of the agenda. The International Style became synonymous with modernism in architecture. In coining this term in 1932, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote in their influential book, The International Style, “This contemporary style, which exists throughout the world, is unified and inclusive, not fragmentary and contradictory like so much of the production of the first generation of modern architects.”[iv]
The international emphasis of modernism prompted many writers and artists to change their names to identities that obscured their cultural roots. The Romanian Jewish poet Samuel Rosenstock reinvented himself as Tristan Tzara and wrote mostly in French. Paul Antschel, another Romanian Jew, became Paul Celan and chose to write in German. The American Jew Emmanuel Radnitzky invented the name Man Ray for himself from the letters of his full name. The photographer/painter Henriette Theodora Markovic (Picasso’s mate and model) called herself Dora Maar. Toyen, the Czech artist, was originally Marie Cerminova. Manoog Vosdanig Andoian, who had an unmistakably Armenian name, recreated himself as Arshile Gorky. Hans Arp often used the French-sounding Jean Arp. The list goes on.
In literature and the visual arts, many of the practitioners of modernism travelled to France to work. In his poem, “Bypassing Rue Descartes” Czeslaw Milosz describes this sense of coming to Paris from another country and feeling the pressure to abandon the ways of his homeland:
Bypassing rue Descartes
I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler
A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world.
We were many, from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest,
Saigon and Marrakesh,
Ashamed to remember the customs of our homes,
About which no one here should ever be told:
The clapping for servants, barefooted girls hurry in,
Dividing food with incantations,
Choral prayers recited by master and household together.
I had left the cloudy provinces behind,
I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring.[v]
In Milosz’s poem there are excellent reasons why the “barbarians” from outside France are eager to forget their native lands. They come from backward places, which he masterfully sketches with a few quick lines. These outlying countries are marked by strict hierarchy (“the clapping for servants”), poverty (“barefooted girls”), superstition (“Dividing food with incantations”), and enforced social unity based on outdated and patriarchal traditions (“Choral prayers recited by master and household together”). But Milosz goes on in his poem to write about how the search for a universal in the Paris intellectual world led to a barbarism as extreme as any of the traditional cultures:
Soon enough, many from Jassy and Koloshvar, or Saigon or Marrakesh
Would be killed because they wanted to abolish the customs of their homes.
Soon enough, their peers were seizing power
In order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas.
Both those who used repression to preserve the ancient traditions and those who struggled to abolish them were guilty of excesses of violence, as in the Nazi pogrom in Jassy, Romania, which Milosz alludes to when he mentions that town in this poem.
Like Milosz after him, Lorca rejected the international focus of Parisian modernism. In books like his Romancero gitano [Gypsy Ballads], Lorca drew heavily on the unique cultural flavors of the region around his native Granada. He was enormously proud of and excited by his Spanish and Andalusian heritage, another reason he did not want to forfeit it in favor of a less colorful international style of writing.
Many New World artists who originally embraced modernism also returned to the areas where they grew up to plant their art in native soil. Diego Rivera painted quite successfully in the Cubist style in Paris from 1913 to 1917 before denouncing modernism and founding the muralist movement in Mexico. He became openly hostile to the tenets of modernism and repudiated his earlier work. “Cubism was a decadent art,” he said in an interview with Bertram Wolfe in 1932, and labeled that style “…the art of a declining bourgeoisie.”[vi] Rivera’s break with French modernism took a dramatic form during a famous incident when he publicly slapped Cubist poet and theoretician Pierre Reverdy in Paris in 1917, right before he left that city.
Rivera’s later work does includes elements of modernism, though. History seems to occur simultaneously in many of Rivera’s murals, as if he’d merged Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase with Mexico’s struggle against neocolonialism. But Rivera’s response to modernism was mostly to reject it in favor of a more classical style that he could use for his murals of Mexican life and history, even consciously borrowing his compositions and his style of painting horses from Renaissance fresco painters like Paolo Uccello.
In the 1920s and 30s the American Scene painters deliberately steered clear of modernist movements in order to return to the Midwest and other regions to portray local life, consciously rejecting Cubist and Surrealist techniques to borrow from other eras. Artist George Biddle wrote in 1926, “Slowly I began to feel how different from our own is the French or Paris mentality…Most French art—indeed most European art—is fluent, detached, critical, aware of its artistry; while our best American art has always been sensitive, inhibited, romantic, passionate, naïve in its realism and often not too critical…of the problems of aesthetics.”[vii] In fact, the American painters of Lorca’s time were so eager to repudiate modernism that, like Rivera, they often consciously quoted archaic techniques, such as Grant Wood’s cribbing Italian Quattrocentro styles in his depictions of Iowa farm life, and Thomas Hart Benton’s Breughel-like threshers.
Lorca was also resistant to the obliteration of regional culture in modernism. He mentions Paris denigratingly in his famous essay, “Theory and Function of the Duende,” dating from 1933. When Lorca describes a flamenco singer in Cádiz who failed to perform with duende, he recounts how someone in the crowd mocked her:
Pavora Pavón finished singing in the midst of silence. Only a little man, one of those emasculated dancers who suddenly spring up from behind bottles of white brandy, said sarcastically in a very low voice: “Viva Paris!”, as if to say, “Here we do not care for ability, technique or mastery. Here we care for something else.”[viii]
Lorca is placing side-by-side the aesthetic of Paris—which emphasizes universal artistic measures such as ability, technique, and mastery—and his native Spain. In Spain what really matters to Lorca is whether a performer has the quality that “burns the blood with powdered glass”—duende.
Lorca planted much of his art in the landscape of Andalusia. His collection Gypsy Ballads uses many surrealist techniques, such as dream-like language and imagery. But the poems are significantly different from the stream-of-consciousness works that were then being written by proponents of automatic writing in Paris. “Although it is called Gypsy,” Lorca wrote of his collection, “the book as a whole is the poem of Andalusia… with Gypsies, horses, archangels, planets, its Jewish breeze, its Roman breeze, rivers, crimes, the everyday touch of the smuggler and the celestial touch of the naked children of Cordova who tease Saint Raphael.”[ix] Lorca envisions Andalusia as a fusion of its Roman, Arab, Jewish, Iberian, and gypsy heritage.
But Lorca was not viewing his diverse region through the lens of more traditional artistic styles, the way Diego Rivera looked at Mexico, or Grant Wood saw his native Iowa. Lorca was a surrealist, but a surrealist who was unmistakeably from Andalusia.
What Lorca created was a Spanish version of what Marc Chagall did with his Eastern European hometown in his early paintings. Chagall adapted modernist practices, using the colors and imagery of the imagination, but centered his work very much in the local culture of the shtetl where he grew up in the Polish town of Vitebsk. His dreamlike images of goats, violin players, old Jews, and flying lovers are painted in a style that undoubtedly breaks with traditional art. Chagall explores Eastern European through the lens of the imagination and Cubism, not from the perspective of Social Realism or Regionalism.
Lorca did something similar with his Andalusia. He grounded his poetry and his drama in a world where the images mated in dreamlike ways, but were still referring to a recognizable local reality. In his great poem “Sleepwalking Ballad” from his collection Gypsy Ballads, Lorca sketches a dream landscape that is both regional and modernist, one that could only exist in his native Andalusia. The characters are a young gypsy man, pursued by the Guardia Civil, who have wounded him in a fight; the gypsy’s love, the green woman; and her father, whose house the gypsy comes to for refuge and to see his lover before he’s taken prisoner. The poem has the skeleton of a plot of a traditional ballad, and it keeps to the Spanish romance or ballad form of eight syllable lines where the even-numbered lines end in the same two vowels. The romance has a kind of half rhyme that feels very modern in Lorca’s hands, though the form goes back to the classics of Spanish poetry, including El Cid. Each even numbered line in the poem ends with a word where the final two vowels are both a, and Lorca sustains this for the entire eighty-six lines of the poem, a tour de force.
But as much as this poem has the right form and the characters for a traditional ballad, it veers from that tradition in the very first words “Verde que te quiero verde” [“Green how much I want you green”]. The speaker of the line is not the narrator of the poem, and in fact it’s not clear who the speaker is—possibly the gypsy, possibly the poet himself. The opening has the passion of a tragic ballad, but the imagery is surreal and otherworldly.
The imagery becomes even more unearthly in the second stanza. Lorca writes of “the fish of darkness/that opens the road of dawn.” The mountain is “a filching cat.”
In the third stanza, the surreal quality stems partly from the fact that it’s not easy to sort out who is speaking and who is listening. It appears that the gypsy is asking his lover’s father for refuge: “I want to change/my horse for your house.” In a standard ballad, the father might refuse because he is afraid of retribution from the law, or because he wants to protect his daughter’s innocence. But in Lorca’s poem, the father’s reasons for declining to provide protection for the young man are abstract, even metaphysical:
If I could, young man,
this pact would be sealed.
But I am no more I,
nor is my house my house.
Of course the old man could mean that he no longer has an identity or a safe home in a repressive culture, but his statement is strangely general and troubling, like a character in a dream. It is as if the old man knows he is supposed to be a player in a ballad, but can’t act the part he has been cast for, like a Pirandello character.
The two friends go up on the roof, where the apocalyptic imagery keeps coming with hallucinatory beauty: “A thousand crystal tambourines/were piercing the dawn.” The voice of the young man (or the poet?) intervenes in the narrative to repeat the beautiful but spooky refrain, “Green how much I want you green.” The wind, too, carries a green force, with the taste of gall, mint, and basil. This green is a color both of bitterness and revival.
Poof! The green girl then disappears from the rooftop, like a character in a dream whose whereabouts don’t stay put. Now she’s swaying over the cistern. Has she hanged herself? The guardia civil gendarmes are banging on the door of the house. Will they nab the gypsy? The poem ends puzzlingly, only repeating its first four lines, never showing us the end of the story.
“Sleepwalking Ballad” is a perfect example of the way that Lorca uses local landscape and artistic forms but translates them to a modernist idiom. In combining these two sources, Lorca anticipated multiculturalism, an artistic movement that assimilates both the spirit of self-determination that came out of identity politics, and the aesthetic of modernism, which dipped into the subconscious and the abstract, to intensify expression.
In fact Lorca’s connection to North American multiculturalism is not a hypothetical idea. When the poet was stifled by Spain and had to escape in 1929 and 1930, he chose to flee not to Paris but to the New World, spending a year travelling in New York and then Cuba.
While in the U.S., he immediately identified with African American culture, equating the cante jondo, or deep songs of Andalusian flamenco, with the Blues. While Lorca was in Cuba, he gravitated toward son music, made famous in the U.S. by the movie The Buena Vista Social Club. What fed Lorca’s soul in the Americas was everything that was local and vital, but not corny and traditional.
In his own writing, Lorca felt pulled both by the new directions of modernism, and by the regional culture of Andalusia. His blend of these two strong tastes are part of what make his writing so contemporary and alive today.
[This essay was originally published in Poetry Flash.]
[This essay was originally published in Poetry Flash.]
[i] Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, Third Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) 92-93.
[ii] Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, trans. Douglas Cooper (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969) 318.
[iii] Miró—la collection du Centre George Pompidou, Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne (Centre George Pompidou: Paris, 1999) 183.
[iv] Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966) 19.
[v] J.D. McClatchy, The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) 129–30.
[vi] Ramón Favela, Diego Rivera: The Cubist Years (Phoenix: The Phoenix Art Museum, 1984) 2.
[vii] Matthew Baigell, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930s (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974) 23.
[viii] Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, eds., Poetics of the New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1973) 95.
[ix] Ian Gibson, Federico García Lorca: A Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) 135.
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