Cover image for Modernism and Its Merchandise: The Spanish Avant-Garde and Material Culture, 1920-1930 By Juli Highfill

Modernism and Its Merchandise

The Spanish Avant-Garde and Material Culture, 1920-1930

Juli Highfill


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06345-4

$43.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06343-0

288 pages
7" × 9.5"
48 b&w illustrations

Refiguring Modernism

Modernism and Its Merchandise

The Spanish Avant-Garde and Material Culture, 1920-1930

Juli Highfill

“There are many reasons to read Modernism and Its Merchandise, and I think all of them are excellent. First of all, the book is a very welcome and timely complement to the countless studies on the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). . . . Secondly, [it] is a study that is both extremely well-focused and smartly inclusive. . . . Finally, this book is also a marvelous thing to hold and to have: great design, great iconography, great writing.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The writers and artists of the Spanish avant-garde, enthralled with the streamlined, mass-produced commodities of the Machine Age, incorporated these objects into their literary and visual works. In doing so, they launched a broad inquiry into the relations between mind and matter, people and things, words and world. In Modernism and Its Merchandise, Juli Highfill traces that dissonant but productive line of inquiry by focusing on the objects of obsession for the Spanish vanguardists—starting with the fruit bowls of cubist still life; continuing with the merchandise, machines, and fashions of the 1920s; and concluding with objects of ruin and decay. The trajectory moves from the natural to the technological domains, from the newfangled to the outmoded. Throughout this study, objects appear ever in motion, engaging and altering their human subjects—whether as objects of exchange, as prosthetic organs, or as triggers for powerful affective responses, such as appetite, taste, and disgust. The insights that arise from these encounters with material things anticipate the knowledge emerging today in the fields of material culture, technology studies, and network theory.
“There are many reasons to read Modernism and Its Merchandise, and I think all of them are excellent. First of all, the book is a very welcome and timely complement to the countless studies on the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). . . . Secondly, [it] is a study that is both extremely well-focused and smartly inclusive. . . . Finally, this book is also a marvelous thing to hold and to have: great design, great iconography, great writing.”
“Wide-ranging, bibliographically generous, and ambitious, Modernism and Its Merchandise is an important contribution to our understanding of the Spanish avant-garde.”
Modernism and Its Merchandise draws together, relates, and interprets an astonishing variety of literary, plastic, commercial, and discursive artifacts created between the end of World War I and the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic. Cultural studies scholarship is sometimes faulted for being an inch deep and a mile wide. Juli Highfill’s is as deep as it is wide. Philosophy, art, etymology (in French, Latin, and Spanish), literature, fashion, economics, history, technology, and commerce: at one point or another, Highfill delves into primary and secondary texts in all of these fields in order to present her interpretation of avant-garde culture in Spain. It is a tour de force, and I have no doubt it will become the standard work of reference, or jumping-off point for further research, for this period in Spanish culture.”
“This book breaks new ground by considering the Spanish avant-garde from the standpoint of material culture. By focusing on the fascination with the commodity, it shows the Spanish avant-garde to have been much more concerned with the everyday than has been previously recognized. A major contribution to scholarship.”
“Juli Highfill offers a coruscating revision of the debates on dehumanization (and rehumanization) in Spanish art and letters of the early twentieth century. Her discussion of early champions of the modern such as José Ortega y Gasset, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, and Guillermo de Torre as well as others associated with surrealism—including Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí—brings new kinds of subjectivity and lyricism to light. Spain’s modernity is placed on an international stage, where the art of the moment answers the challenge of technology and market forces—and devours itself in the process.”
“Juli Highfill’s perceptive and painstakingly researched book weaves subtly complex ideas about modern and modernist cultural texts, commercial display, taste, and distinction into a tapestry resplendent with innumerable brilliant and illuminating insights. As the chapters progress from Ortega and the still life to questions of merchandise, machines, and fashions, ending with ruin and decay, the reappearance of images, concepts, and characters throughout allows the reader to glean a rich sense of the period. This organic structure is complemented by the unpretentious elegance of Highfill’s writing, which is simultaneously diaphanous and weighty, pleasurable and satisfying. Although Modernism and Its Merchandise is destined to become a classic for scholars of modernism and Iberian studies, any intelligent reader will enjoy this beautifully written book.”
“Juli Highfill’s persuasive new book blends contemporary theory and criticism with philosophers’ views from the Machine Age to present an insightful and stimulating assessment of Spanish modernity. Demonstrating first-rate scholarship conversant with technology studies and network theory, Highfill establishes a wide range of literary and artistic connections. Her case is presented from a material culture perspective and follows an itinerary from the objects of nature to the objects of technology and commerce. The result is a startlingly innovative reexamination of the Spanish vanguardia, adding new perspectives on the so-called Silver Age. Readers will rediscover, among others, Gómez de la Serna, Guillermo de Torre, Salinas, Buñuel, and Dalí.”
“In Modernism and Its Merchandise, Juli Highfill explores the multiple ways in which creators and artists engaged with the material world at a time of great technological innovation and changing attitudes toward art, reality, and representation. The book provides a solid and sophisticated theoretical contextualization grounded in philosophy, aesthetics, and cultural and literary studies. It investigates areas and approaches that will certainly guide future studies. A very valuable addition to the study of the Spanish avant-garde.”
“This handsomely illustrated monograph stands as a work of prodigious research and analysis. . . . The foregoing only gives a hint of the subtle complexity and mobile intellect at work in this book. There are insights on every page, the writing is witty, and the rich bibliography offers additional food for thought.”

Juli Highfill is Professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan.


List of Illustrations



1 Ortega’s Apples, Ramón’s Bottles

2 Merchandise on Display

3 Metaphoric Commerce

4 The Technological Prosthetic

5 Fashion Rites

6 Objects of Decay






La cantidad de objetos bellos creados por el hombre de hoy y que éste encuentra a su alrededor donde quiera que ponga los ojos no tiene comparación con el repertorio de la vida material de ninguna éopca. La realidad circundante ha dado un avance arrollador, irresistible.

(The quantity of beautiful objects created by man today and which he finds all around him wherever he lays his eyes has no comparison with the repertoire of material life of any epoch. The reality that surrounds us has made a sweeping, irresistible advancement.)

—Pedro Salinas, “Mundo real y mundo poético”

Things at Issue

We live surrounded by the artifacts of modern life, whether simple tools or utensils, machines or appliances, or the complex gadgets of the digital age. Quietly and humbly, these things do their work for us—providing comforts, easing our labors, extending our mental, muscle, and visual power. Because of their built-in responsiveness to human needs, we pay them little mind, at least until they fail to function. And if someone should call attention to material things by praising the mundane work they perform, it may strike us as rather odd.

There was a time, however, in the first decades of the twentieth century—a period of rapid technological change in Spain—when everyday encounters with material objects seemed so extraordinary that they demanded attention. The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset exclaimed, “Blessed be things! Love them, love them!” Things can only reveal their full meaning, he argued, when infused with an idea, when “loved” as objects of philosophical thought. With equal enthusiasm, Ramón Gómez de la Serna called on his readers to embrace things passionately, to “dance cheek to cheek” with them, and to recognize their own status as things. Jorge Luis Borges, then a young “ultraist” living in Spain, proposed a new aesthetic based on “naked vision,” free of “ancestral stigmas,” and able to perceive the “vitality of things.” Such impassioned appeals for intimacy with objects abound in the writings of the historic Spanish avant-garde, as writers and artists sought to apprehend a material world transformed by technology and commerce.

The Spanish vanguardists were not unique in this sense; European modernism at large was enthralled with the streamlined products of the Machine Age. But Spain’s backwardness, relative to northern Europe, gave added impetus to a broad-based fascination with modern merchandise. Spain’s modernization—delayed, uneven, and compressed into several decades—had produced a consumer culture entranced with automobiles and airplanes and hungry for the gleaming, mass-produced merchandise that beckoned in shop windows. By the 1920s, a “desire to be modern” overtook the population, fed by mass-media images in cinema and in a burgeoning print-media market. Members of the urban middle class—more numerous and prosperous than ever before—became avid consumers, many taking advantage of newly available installment plans in order to acquire gramophones, cameras, typewriters, appliances, automobiles, and the latest fashions.

That desire for all things modern extended beyond consumer goods to the realm of ideas, as the educated citizenry avidly followed new developments in philosophy and science. Bergson’s writings on perception, Husserl’s phenomenology, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Bohr’s planetary model of the atom, Ortega’s perspectivism—all these exciting but unsettling ideas circulated in Spanish intellectual circles and challenged time-honored assumptions about the solidity and knowability of the material world. Suddenly, the inanimate world seemed strangely alive and mutable. The lines between mind and matter, agent and artifact, words and the world became blurred. Long-standing enigmas about the nature of things, their ambiguous status as both things and signs—as sites where matter and meaning coincide—once more came to the forefront. Long-standing anxieties about the “thing-in-itself” reemerged—that nagging philosophical suspicion that things remain just beyond our grasp, never fully accessible to either sense or the senses. Fascinated with their object world and preoccupied with these vexing questions, the Spanish vanguardists gathered around things and launched a far-reaching inquiry into the material world.

The term “thing,” Heidegger reminds us, originally designated a gathering or assembly of freemen. A thing (dinc in old German) was once understood as a “matter under discussion, a contested matter,” and in this sense, the term coincided with the Latin res, meaning “that which is pertinent, which has a bearing.” By extension, res publica meant “not the state, but that which, known to everyone, concerns everybody and is therefore deliberated in public.” In the Romance languages, Heidegger observes, the terms for thing—cosa, chose, coisa—derived from the Latin causa, meaning a “case, topic, or question,” which likewise suggests a “thing at issue,” something “under discussion.” This convergence of meanings across different languages is no etymological accident, Heidegger insists. Although submerged in semantic history, these meanings still resonate in everyday language use, as speakers use the term “things” (and cosas) to refer to an enormous range of entities, objects, and situations that arise as issues, as matters of concern. The very breadth of this everyday usage calls attention to the sociality of things—how the things we behold and hold in common operate within a vast network 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 texts became things that gathered readers around them, adding still more participants to a far-reaching dialogue.

Although this energetic, often dissonant conversation produced no definitive answers, it launched new lines of inquiry that anticipated the knowledge emerging today in the fields of material culture, network theory, and cognitive science. The key insight to arise from the vanguardist discourse on things locates them “in society,” in the collective domain to which they have always belonged. Things can never appear to us “naked,” despite Borges’s desire to strip them of “ancestral stigmas”; rather, they come to us wrapped in discourse, in all that has previously been known and said about them. The very act of conceptualization, of singling out a segment of human experience, relies upon linguistic consensus and thus acknowledges a community in which things come to “count” as interpretable objects. Likewise, the act of creation, of conceiving and producing an object, moves it from the private domain into the community. The imagined object, once made, becomes visible to others and sharable. Making is therefore a social act, and all artifacts have a collective outcome, as Elaine Scarry has observed. Moreover, artifacts emerge as projections of human needs and desires, and in so doing they act as prostheses, amplifying our mental and motor capacities. Whether it be a warm coat, an electric light, a radio, a file cabinet, an automobile, or an airplane, an artifact reciprocates; it remakes its makers, revising their conceptions of self, and transforms the social world they inhabit.

Society in Transit

The avant-garde inquiry into the material culture of the 1920s reveals a complex picture of a society in rapid transformation. By most markers of modernity, Spain made extraordinary progress in a few short years. Improvements in public health led to increasing life expectancy, from age 41 in 1920 to age 50 in 1930, and the population grew 10.7 percent, from 21.3 to 23.6 million. With greater access to schooling, in urban areas at least, the literacy rate improved from 48 percent in 1920 to 73 percent in 1930. Meanwhile, the “regenerationist” military regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera (lasting from 1923 to 1930) made enormous investments in infrastructure, resulting in a doubling of miles of highway, a tripling of yearly telephone communications, and a 120 percent growth in electrical energy. Automobile ownership—the prime emblem of success in modern society—expanded from 37,000 registered vehicles in 1923 to 239,000 in 1930. And as early as 1921, the first commercial aviation companies began operating out of newly built airports; by the end of the decade, a zeppelin line carried passengers from Seville to Buenos Aires in three and a half days. Industrial production expanded at an average of 5.5 percent a year between 1923 and 1930, a rate unprecedented since 1850–70. As large numbers of rural residents sought work in factories and construction, the pace of urbanization quickened, resulting in a net migration of 1,168,925 during the 1920s. Urban areas experienced a construction boom; monumental downtown areas with broad avenues—the Gran Vía in Madrid, for example—were completed, in addition to new housing developments for workers and professionals. These new urbanites, in turn, avidly sought out entertainment, flocking to mass spectator sports (football and boxing) and to the new cinema houses, which doubled in number—from 925 in 1920 to 2,062 in 1930.

In response to this new society of spectacle, newspapers and magazines expanded and diversified, filling their pages with photographs of celebrities and featuring photo-essays on sports, cinema, fashion, science, and technology. Popular magazines such as Estampa, Blanco y negro, Algo, and Esfera gained readership, benefitting from the marked increase in literacy. At the same time, a burgeoning advertising industry found its place in print media, enticing customers to purchase the streamlined merchandise that signified modernity. Women were largely the target audience for these magazines and their advertisers, and during these years, the archetype of the “new woman,” active and independent, held sway. Embracing the new fashions of the 1920s, women abandoned the corset and hobble skirt and adopted the straight silhouette and short skirts, which gave them unprecedented freedom of movement. Young men, in turn, went clean-shaven, thanks to the advent of the Gillette safety razor. A cosmopolitan youth culture arose, dedicated to all things modern, as young people embraced sports and jazz and danced the fox-trot, tango, and Charleston.

However, the glittering surface of Spanish society in the felices años veinte tended to disguise less felicitous conditions. Spain’s modernization remained markedly uneven and, despite the notable advancements, still lagged well behind its European neighbors. By the end of the dictatorship, per capita GNP stood at 66 percent of the European average, and while the production of electricity had more than doubled, per capita consumption remained at 25 percent of the level in England, France, and Germany. While the comforts of modern life were widely available in urban areas, rural residents lived much as they had in the nineteenth century. And as industrial production boomed, agriculture stagnated, and a regime so dedicated to rapid modernization was plagued by corruption and economic mismanagement. The authoritarian regime, wielding carrot and stick, managed to dampen labor unrest and suppress Catalan nationalism, but by the late 1920s a weaker economy would bring a resurgence of tensions along with growing opposition among the intelligentsia.

Until midway through the decade, Spain waged a brutal colonial war in Morocco, battling a potent, well-organized independence movement under the leadership of Abd-el-Krim. The young draftees from the rural and urban working class bore the brunt of the war; they were sent into battle as mere cannon fodder, ill-trained and poorly supplied. Indeed, it was the humiliating defeat at Annual in 1921, costing the lives of ten thousand Spanish soldiers, that precipitated Primo de Rivera’s coup in September 1923. Shortly before an investigative commission was due to release its report—which would have thoroughly discredited the army and monarchy—Primo de Rivera, backed by other generals, appointed himself dictator, with King Alfonso XIII retaining the title head of state. Once in power, Primo imposed a strict policy of censorship, banning criticism of the government or army, statements in support of regional separatism, announcements of strikes, and unfavorable coverage of the economy.

Many among the elder generation of intellectuals denounced the military coup—among them Valle Inclán, Blasco Ibáñez, and Unamuno, who would be forced into exile. Ortega, a signatory to a manifesto of 1924 that denounced the regime, ultimately made his peace, albeit an uneasy one. Upon founding the influential journal Revista de Occidente in 1923, he declared politics off-limits; the journal would “turn its back on politics, given that politics never aspires to truly understand things.” As mandarin of the Spanish intelligentsia, Ortega maintained unquestioned authority and prestige, and he devoted his new journal to bringing to select readers the new knowledge emerging throughout the Western world. The Revista de Occidente would respond to “the vital curiosity that an alert individual feels amid the vast germination of life around him . . . and the desire to live face to face with deep contemporary reality.” Upon perusing the journal’s contents through the 1920s, we find a compendium of the most exciting and innovative ideas of the times: in the sciences, essays by Einstein, Born, Haldane, and Eddington; in philosophy, the contributions of Russell, James, and Spengler; in the social sciences, articles by Weber, Simmel, and Jung; in the arts, essays by Le Corbusier, Ozenfant, Valery, and Cocteau; and in literature, works by modernist writers such as Kafka, Pirandello, Woolf, Strachey, Giraudoux, Faulkner, Dos Passos, O’Neill, Svevo, and D. H. Lawrence. At the same time, the Revista de Occidente provided a forum for leading thinkers and creative writers within Spain—for well-established intellectuals such as García Morente, d’Ors, Menéndez Pidal, Castro, Marañon, Machado, and Gómez de la Serna, as well as for a new generation actively mentored by Ortega, among them Lorca, Salinas, Chacel, Mallo, Diego, Jarnés, Vela, and Corpus Barga.

This younger generation of writers, the vanguardists, likewise tended to set politics aside. As self-defined cosmopolitans, they had their sights set on modernity at large and were enthralled by the “isms” then circulating around Europe. Picasso and Braque had launched cubism in Paris in 1907, but cubist art had little impact in Spain until after the world war. Then, in November 1918, a group of young poets launched ultraism, an amalgam of Marinetti’s futurism, Apollinaire’s literary cubism, and German expressionism. They produced visual poems (akin to Apollinaire’s calligrams) filled with iconic images of modernity—airplanes, automobiles, nightclubs, jazz bands, and cocktails. Although ultraism would prove short-lived, the vanguardists continued their frenetic artistic activity throughout the 1920s, founding dozens of revistas in which they published their works.

It was precisely in these journals, and in the tertulias in cafés, where the vanguardists carried on their conversations about the material world that so intrigued them, a dialogue that extended across national boundaries to the European and Latin American vanguardists as well. By the end of the decade, this richly productive inquiry would be cut short—interrupted by world economic crisis and by the urgency of politics. Society would grow increasingly polarized during the heady years of the Second Republic, leading up to the civil war, when Spain became the first battleground for the great ideological “isms” of the twentieth century. The vanguardists who had gathered, however loosely and provisionally, around a common artistic project would each have to take sides. The breadth of their inquiry would be minimized, its heterogeneity suppressed, and its insights largely forgotten. In this project I hope to retrieve some of that forgotten knowledge, to trace those productive lines of inquiry, and to connect them to the knowledge emerging today in our own time of rapid technological and economic change.