One of the things I love about teaching and analyzing Spanish literature is that each time I (re)read a text for a new class or course, I end up interpreting it differently depending on what else I happen to be reading or researching at that time. This week in my graduate seminar on AP Spanish American Literature (syllabus) we analyzed and discussed Pablo Neruda’s 1935 poem “Walking Around.” As I had been reading quite a bit about the avant-garde Spanish painter Maruja Mallo (I wrote my previous post about her 1920s Verbenas (Carnivals)), I discovered a few fantastic connections between one of her unique series of paintings from the early 1930s and the grotesque, surrealist imagery of Neruda’s poem. As I find it especially fruitful for students to analyze poetry alongside a visual, I was particularly enthused about these similarities. I’ve done this type of analytical activity before with poetry and art dealing with the Spanish Civil War, specifically comparing a poem by Vicente Aleixandre and Picasso’s Guernica. This time, the final lines of Neruda’s poem called to mind one of Maruja Mallo’s most well-known surrealist paintings, Espantapájaros (Scarecrows) (1930) – part of her series Cloacas y campanarios (Sewers and Belfries), exhibited in Paris in 1932. This series – a stark contrast to her colorful Verbenas from only four years earlier – is characterized by a dark, monochromatic aesthetic that transmits an eerily pessimistic and destructive sentiment:
Espantapájaros made quite an impact in Paris in 1932, and it was in fact later purchased by André Breton, the French writer and filmmaker who essentially founded and defined the surrealist movement in 1924 with his “First Surrealist Manifesto” (Primer manifiesto surrealista -PDF). Mallo’s Espantapájaros, while not conforming to the precise tenets of surrealism as Breton laid them out, nevertheless exhibits several surrealist traits: the juxtaposition of random, often ordinary objects, the use of dreamlike imagery (especially landscapes), and a sort of liberated chaos that results from the free, disconnected flow of the individual’s unfiltered subconscious thoughts, desires, or fears. Mallo has stated that this series represents her only true “surrealist moment” (Mangini 171). In these paintings, the dark landscape evokes death and desolation, while the somewhat ghostly, skeletal figures demand the viewer’s attention amidst a scattered array of random, broken objects. I immediately thought of these murky, dilapidated scarecrows when I read the final stanza of Neruda’s “Walking Around” – the last four verses of the poem read:
“paso, cruzo oficinas y tiendas de ortopedia,
y patios donde hay ropas colgadas de un alambre:
calzoncillos, toallas y camisas que lloran
lentas lágrimas sucias“
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards where there is clothing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts that cry
slow dirty tears
(English translations of “Walking Around” are from Robert Bly. I’ve modified a few.)
A second, very similar painting – Espantapeces (Fish Scarers, or Scarefishes), below – also formed part of Mallo’s Cloacas y campanarios (Sewers and Belfries) series. This “pathetic and startling sub-aquatic scenery, composed of strips and shreds of cloth, with ruminant skulls and knives stabbing the background” (Gandara 24), received several awards in Barcelona. Like Espantapájaros, Espantapeces presents shadowy, grotesque imagery that finds parallels in “Walking Around” – specifically Mallo’s skulls, animal skeletons, and cavernous underground setting mirror Neruda’s references to death, suffering, and a dark subterranean landscape:
No quiero seguir siendo raíz en las tinieblas,
vacilante, extendido, tiritando de sueño,
hacia abajo, en las tripas moradas de la tierra,
absorbiendo y pensando, comiendo cada día.
No quiero para mí tantas desgracias.
no quiero continuar de raíz y de tumba,
de subterráneo solo, de bodega con muertos,
aterido, muriéndome de pena.
I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.
I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.
While these two paintings – Scarecrows and Scarefish – are most similar in their depiction of decomposing, “scarecrow-like” figures covered in tattered rags, the other paintings in Mallo’s series continue to illustrate themes of death, destruction, and deterioration against a barren, gray wasteland. Bones, skulls, and rubbish piles abound. Antro de fósiles (Fossil Den), below, for example, is a large-scale painting featuring arcade-style arches in the background, while a pair of human skeletons stand out amidst the toads, broken barrels, and mushrooms that populate the rust-colored, toxic earth of the foreground. The arches framing the upper portion of the painting suggest an abandoned urban setting, or perhaps a forgotten civilization in ruins…
…which leads to yet another connection to “Walking Around,” as Neruda creates a nauseating visualization of modern city shops and locales:
Sucede que entro en las sastrerías y en los cines
marchito, impenetrable, como un cisne de fieltro
navegando en un agua de origen y ceniza.
El olor de las peluquerías me hace llorar a gritos. […]
Y me empuja a ciertos rincones, a ciertas casas húmedas,
a hospitales donde los huesos salen por la ventana,
a ciertas zapaterías con olor a vinagre,
a calles espantosas como grietas.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.
The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs. […]
And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin
This darker, more pessimistic, and often existential vein of surrealism became especially prominent in the 1930s. This was an era marked by general social and political unrest on a global scale – the first World War had left world powers divided, social revolutions were springing up across Latin America, the stock market crash in 1929 sparked the decade-long Great Depression in the US, and Spain was suffering from great political instability an the downfall of its monarchy and dictatorship… indeed the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was looming on the horizon. Artists responded, remedying their angst and disgust by rejecting traditional aesthetic and moral values that had brought the world to its current place. Surrealism offered a perfect expressive outlet – Breton had defined it as “pure psychic automatism,” a process by which thoughts are expressed without the intervention of reason, logic, or moral or aesthetic preoccupations. Under this paradigm, chance, locura (craziness), dreams, and subconscious desires – no matter how absurd or offensive – were celebrated. Salvador Dalí’s painting, Melancolía (Melancholoy), although created later in 1945 after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, is an example of the way in which Surrealism allowed for a new way of interpreting reality that would take into account the most violent, irrational aspects of man’s psyche.
Returning to Mallo’s paintings, however, it is telling that Neruda lived in Spain from 1933-35 (Barcelona and Madrid). Having met Federico Garcia Lorca in Buenos Aires in 1933, Lorca introduced Neruda to his intellectual and artistic circle in Madrid – a group that included Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, and Miguel Hernández. As Mallo and Alberti had begun “a passionate, if Bohemian relationship” (Havard 93) in 1926 that would last until 1931, it is likely that Neruda became familiar with Mallo’s work as well. While many have pointed to the mutual influence of Mallo and Alberti, fewer have examined connections between Mallo and other poets of this time – especially those like Neruda whose primary place or residence or study was not Spain’s cultural nucleus, Madrid. Juxtaposing Mallo’s and Neruda’s works affords us a more complete and complex understanding of those early twentieth century Spanish and Spanish American artistic movements that were becoming increasingly transatlantic in scope.
Robert Havard’s book on Rafael Alberti and the Surrealist Ethos in Spain, for example, discusses at length the ways in which Mallo and Alberti collaborated and shared similar approaches to the role of (surrealist) art in general. Considering the sordid side of Spanish surrealism, Havard’s book includes a chapter on scatology and eschatology, which itself dedicates a section to “Maruja Mallo and Eschatology” (92-104). He notes, as I have above,
that with Sewers and Belfries “Maruja turned from the apparent gaiety of her initial paintings to the haunting theme of left-over objects lying on the ground […] depicted in dark-toned paintings, virtually devoid of colour” (95). Two paintings in Mallo’s series, Tierra y excremento (Earth and Excremet) and Sapos y excrementos (Toads and Excrements), are explicitly named after human or animal waste, emphasizing her view that the earth and modern society, particularly the contrast between urban Madrid and the barren landscape of the city’s outskirts, were becoming veritable wastelands.
Havard points out similarities in Mallo’s visual representation of a rotting wasteland and Alberti’s poetic verses featuring “junk objects” (95). Both Havard and Mangini emphasize the role that the outskirts of Madrid played in influencing the pair, especially because Mallo lived at one point on the outskirts of Madrid and Alberti would visit her there. The train ride afforded them opportunities to contemplate the state of civilization and man amidst the ruinous decay outside the city: “The austere landscapes on Madrid’s outskirts inspired her, particularly the garbage, the burnt and waterlogged land, the sewers, the broken bell towers, and the rubble, all of which was undergoing the process of decomposition. In the midst of this detritus, Mallo tells us [in an essay on her work] that ‘the presence of man appears among the footprints, the suits, the skeletons and the dead’ (Mangini 163). Tellingly, two paintings in her Sewers and Belfries series were titled Basura (Garbage) and La huella (The Footprint).
Finally, the limited palette of grays, whites, and blacks in Sewers and Belfries, together with the general sense of fragmentation, has led may critics to establish comparisons to Picasso’s 1936 Guernica (Gandara 24). Since Mallo’s paintings were created before Guernica, her influence may not have come from Picasso as much as from Spanish painters of the past – notable Francisco de Goya. In fact, in writing today’s post on Mallo’s shocking, “dark paintings” after having just written about her colorful Verbenas, I could not help but think of the way in which Goya took a similar dark, cynical turn during his prolific career – I wrote about this shift and his so-called “Black Paintings” (and the controversy surrounding them) last year. Mangini also points to Mallo’s respect for and admiration of Goya, particularly regarding Los caprichos (Caprices), which Mallo praised for their satirizing of “the corruption and superstition of his era” (164). If Goya’s nightmarish sketches were a source of inspiration for Mallo, then we might consider these surrealist landscapes to be more than mere expressions of angst and disgust; their attention to decay and ruin may be read as a similar critique of modern corruption and uneven modernization.
Several other paintings were included in Mallo’s series, but I have been unable to locate them online – one is titled “Largarto y cenizas” (Lizards and Ashes) and another “Campanario” (Belfry). Gandara describes the former as a “terrifying vision of a reptile skeleton with human hands” and the latter as a symbolic satire (24). If any of my readers knows where to find these, I’d appreciate any help!
What other Spanish or Latin American artists could be compared to Mallo or Neruda for their creation of grotesque, dark surrealist imagery in poetry, prose, or the plastic arts?
Ballesteros Garcia, Rosa Maria. “Maruja Mallo (1902-1994). De Las cloacas al espacio sideral.” Aposta. Revista de Ciencias Sociales 13 (Dic 2004): 1-34. PDF via ApostaDigital.
Gandara, Consuelo de la. Maruja Mallo. Artistas españoles contemporáneos. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, 1978. Google Books.
Havard, Robert. The Crucified Mind. Rafael Alberti and the Surrealist Ethos in Spain. London: Tamesis, 2001. Google Books.
Mangini, Shirley. “The Gendered Body Politic of Maruja Mallo.” Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy. New York: Routledge, 2016.