I’ve been working for several months now on an article on Carmen de Burgos’s 1924 novel La mujer fantástica (The Amazing/Fantastic Woman), and my research has been focused a lot on European art history and the diverse visual imagery that Burgos evokes throughout the text. I started my research examining the representation of fashion in the novel, as I originally presented a paper at an April conference on Fashion in Hispanic Literature at Lehman College in New York City. But as my research on fashion evolved — especially as a result of exploring the concept of “fashion-as-art” that Burgos articulates in her 1920 conduct manual El arte de ser mujer (The Art of Being a Woman) — I found myself delving more and more into Spanish and French art and art history. Outside of the actual narrative text that I have been analyzing, I became especially curious as to the design of the book’s cover (below), which features a colorful, mirrored portrait of a woman. However the upside-down, reflected image differs slightly – or inversely – from the original upright model, who is depicted as a blonde woman wearing a yellow shawl over a red top.
Given the colors, the doubling effect, and the “alternative” reflection, not to mention the fact that the cover dates to the height of Avant-garde literary and artistic activity in 1920s Spain, I immediately thought of Picasso’s famous cubist-style painting, “Girl before a mirror,“ although this particular masterpiece was completed 8 years later in 1932.
While I’m intrigued by what a detailed comparison might offer in terms of better understanding early 20th-century representations of womanhood (by men!), especially noting the disjuncture between an image (or self-image) and reality, I needed to learn more about the artist behind La mujer fantástica’s cover. The signature, “BON,” is clearly visible in the upper left-hand corner of the cover and, as I began reviewing the Burgos novels available for electronic download from the Biblioteca Nacional de España and Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, I noticed the same simple signature, printed in capital letters, on several Burgos novels published by Editorial Sempere (Valencia). These equally attractive and intriguing covers were actually what led me to focus on (become distracted by?) the cover-art of La mujer fantástica. So, after doing a quick search for an artista with the name or pseudonym “Bon,” I landed on Roman Bonet Sintes, or “Bon” (1886-1967), a Barcelona-born artist who created comics, caricatures, political posters, advertisements, and numerous illustrated covers for popular magazines (revistas), journals, and books, in Spain and also in the United States (1927-29). Below are examples of covers for three other novels by Carmen de Burgos that were included in the library’s collection. The novels can be downloaded as PDFs, and the cover pages save nicely as JPEG images — I’m thinking they may make nice “decor” for my new office this year… !
Carmen de Burgos (1867-1932) wrote several cookbooks and instructional manuals for women during the early years of her career and through the 1920s. Prof. Rebecca Ingram has done some fascinating research on the purported conflict between Burgos’s socially compromised fiction (like La rampa, for example) and her more “frivolous” texts dedicated to traditional women’s issues and concerns such as cooking (above), fashion, and beauty (below). Ingram argues in a recent article that Burgos actually “uses the same techniques in her cookbooks as she does in her fiction to capitalize on the ‘frivolous’ nature of the genre and embed in it a serious critique of the social roles allowed to women.” This echoes earlier critiques and analyses literary scholars have made of Burgos’s beauty manuals, like El arte de ser mujer, which can be regarded as much more than mere frivolities, given the way in which Burgos creates a discourse of irony and self-reflection (see Prof. Ana María Díaz Marcos‘s study on fashion in Spanish literature, La edad de seda).
Below, the cover for La malcasada (The Unhappily Married Woman) is obviously metaphorical, as it depicts men watching a rooster fight. Dolores, the symbolically named protagonist of this novel, finds herself unhappily married to an abusive man who became increasingly angry and violent after their marriage. The novel aims to illuminate and criticize the ways in which marriage could become a veritable prison for women, particularity within the cultural and institutional codes still prevalent in traditional, rural Spanish communities. A new edition of this 220-page novel was recently released by Renacimiento (2016), and several literary scholars have described this novel as one of Burgos’s “most autobiographical,” as she, too, had escaped an abusive marriage in the rural village of Almería before relocating to Madrid with her young daughter (bio).
As an immensely popular artist during Spain’s “Silver Age” of literature (1898-1939), Bon (Roman Bonet Sintes) was a recognizable figure among the intellectual, bohemian artistic circles of Madrid and Barcelona. Regarding this literary boom of the early 20th century, in their new volume Kiosk Literature of Silver Age Spain. Modernity and Mass Culture, which I’m very excited to read, Profs. Jeffrey Zamostny and Susan Larson have collected a variety of essays that explore this boom in mass cultural production by analyzing the era’s Kiosk literature. Generally published weekly, these often pocket-sized books or booklets had attention-grabbing cover art that allowed them to be quickly sold in urban kiosks at relatively low prices. In fact, Zamostny states in his Introduction that by 1916, literature had become the least expensive form of entertainment in Spain — full-length novels could be purchased for the equivalent of a ticket to a bullfight or the theater, but a novel would occupy more of a reader’s time and afford them the benefit of reselling it or creating a personal library (33-34). I would add — based solely and entirely non-academically on me imagining myself as a literature-loving consumer in 1920s Madrid — that novels such as those included in this post would also allow the reader to amass a sort of personalized, popular art collection, in addition to their individually curated library. For example, collecting and compiling some of the work of Bon — only one of the numerous popular illustrators of the time — has allowed me to create a sort of virtual art exhibit here.
To add to and complement the artwork Bon created for Carmen de Burgos’s novels, I’ll end this post with a few examples of the cover-art Bon also created for Burgos’s companion, the more widely celebrated and studied representative of the Spanish Avant-garde, Ramón Gómez de la Serna. On the website dedicated to Bon and his work, numerous examples of cover-art designed for popular magazines and novels are featured under the era, “Etapa cartelista, 1920-29,” and while none of Carmen de Burgos’s novels or novellas appear, several penned by Ramon are highlighted. Below are four of these covers, which not only provide a more thorough overview of the style of cover-art Bon produced for popular literature, but they also illustrate the similarities in terms of the literary production of the long-admired Ramón and the long-ignored/forgotten Burgos.
What are some of your favorite vintage novel covers? Do you judge a book by its cover when making a purchase, like early 20th-century Spanish consumers may have done?
(*I will admit that I tend to consider/become influenced by cover art*)
Burgos, Carmen de. El arte de ser mujer (1920). Biblok, 2014.
—. La cocina práctica. Valencia, Sempere, 1920 (1925?). Madrid: Biblioteca Nacional de Espana, Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, 2016.
—. La malcasada. Valencia, Sempere, 1923. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2010.
—. La mujer fantástica. Valencia, Sempere, 1924. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2010.
—. Tesoro de belleza (El arte de seducir). Valencia, Sempere, 1924. Madrid: Biblioteca Nacional de Espana, Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, 2016.
Díaz Marcos, Ana María. La edad de seda. Representaciones de la moda en la literatura española (1728-1926). Servicio Publicaciones, UCA Universidad de Cadiz, 2006.
** The final chapter on the 20th century, including Burgos, can be read or downloaded here via the Biblioteca virtual Miguel de Cervantes.
Ingram, Rebecca. “Escritora-ama de casa?: The Political Tactics of Carmen de Burgos’ Culinary Writing.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 2017, pp. 1-13.
Zamostny, Jeffrey and Susan Larson, editors. Kiosk Literature of Silver Age Spain. Modernity and Mass Culture. Intellect and U of Chicago P, 2017.