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Hats Off to Las Sinsombrero
Resources to explore a forgotten legacy of Spain’s avant-garde poets, painters and philosophers
by Sandra Hahn, Content Editor Lead of the Bibliografía de la Literatura Española
Un día se nos ocurrió […] quitarnos el sombrero porque decíamos parecer que estamos congestionando las ideas, y atravesando la Puerta del Sol nos apedrearon llamándonos de todo.
[One day it occurred to us […] to take off our hats because we felt that our ideas were becoming congested, and, as we crossed the Puerta del Sol, they threw stones at us, calling us all kinds of names.]*
-artist Maruja Mallo
Known as the “Women Without Hats,” Las Sinsombrero were the female half of a prolific group of Spanish writers and artists in the 1920s and 1930s – a group that included the likes of Federico García Lorca, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí.
Spain’s legendary Generation of 1927 was known for its avant-garde approach to living life. Creative and innovative, members of this group were unrestrained by social norms and cultural traditions, according to the book Avant-Garde Cultural Practices in Spain.
However, the contributions of its female writers and artists have largely been forgotten. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 forced Las Sinsombrero to disperse into exile. The Franco dictatorship (1936-1975) silenced their voices and consciously removed them from Spanish historical memory.
Now, more than forty years after Franco’s death, the “granddaughter” generation is working to reinsert into the history of Spain this forgotten group, which the documentary Las Sinsombrero referred to as the “golden generation” of Spanish women writers and artists.
Let’s take a look at some of these women and their creative legacies.
Maruja Mallo (1902-1995)
“Half angel, half shellfish.”
According to an article in El País, this is how Salvador Dalí described his friend, fellow artist Maruja Mallo. In her artwork, Mallo dynamically depicted women not as passive objects of the male gaze but as active participants in life, expressing their freedom and autonomy. Unable to classify her work within a specific movement, baffled critics of the period speak of “Cubist, Constructivist, Surrealist, Expressionist, Magic Realist, Neo-Populist, and Abstract tendencies,” according to author Shirley Mangini.
In Las Verbenas [The Carnivals, or The Street Fairs], a four-part series of oil paintings exhibited in 1928, Mallo captured the lively, surreal atmosphere of Madrid’s open-air festivals, which she frequently attended with writer Concha Méndez, wrote Mangini. La verbena, the first of the series, was painted in 1927. At its center are two young, muscular women in tennis dresses, noted Mangini, “obviously representing Mallo and Méndez, who was a competitive swimmer. Although their masquerade includes wings and halo-like party hats, their extroverted behavior, unladylike stances, and rowdiness defy these angelic artifacts.”
Concha Méndez (1898-1986)
No other Spanish poet—male or female—exemplified the ‘‘Roaring Twenties’’ like the Concha Méndez. She embraced the spirit of the Jazz Age and personified the very definition of “modernity” with her youthfulness, enthusiasm for change, love of movement, and dynamic self-assurance, observed scholar Catherine Bellver. As a champion swimmer, Méndez was more aware than most women of her generation of the power and prowess of her body. Her friend Mallo often featured the athletic Méndez in her paintings.
Bold and daring, this poet and dramatist impressed observers with her determination to live life to its fullest. According to Stanley Richardson, an English critic of the era, ‘‘she is not merely crying at the moon; she is preparing to go there in an autogiro. If you deny her that, she will plant a beanstalk which her enthusiasm will urge up to heaven. And if you cut down her beanstalk, she will sprout wings and be gone. You cannot stop Concha Méndez.”
“Día” (from Canciones de mar y tierra, 1930)
Hojas de Otoño
Alas de oro
¡Libélula gris del viento,
qué bien te siento volar,
qué bien te siento, te siento!...
Por este día de Otoño
vagando va una canción,
una canción ámbar y oro
que me dora el corazón.
Gray dragonfly on the wind,
How well I feel you fly,
How well I feel you, I feel you!...
For this autumn day
A song goes wandering,
A song, amber and gold,
That gilds my heart.]*
Ernestina de Champourcín (1905-1999)
Ernestina de Champourcín was one of only two women poets (with Josefina de la Torre) who were included in Gerardo Diego’s 1934 landmark anthology of early 20th-century Spanish poetry. Juan Ramón Jiménez, another contemporary, referred to Champourcín as a “prophetic priestess.” Despite these early gestures of recognition, her work has been marginalized from the official Spanish canon and, until very recently, forgotten.
What is most striking about the trajectory of Champourcín’s poetry is its evolution over time, in reflection of the life of the writer herself. As she transitions from a carefree life in liberal Spain to a life in solitary exile, her writing moves from spontaneous emotionality to intentional, aesthetic invention and finally to a vehicle of communication and spiritual (and at times mystical) transcendence, according to Bellver.
“Danza en tres tiempos” [A Dance in Three Movements], was first published in 1928, when the poet was twenty-three. It begins:
parada al margen de mí misma.
Quietud vertiginosa . . .
Libre de voz y gesto, soy, lejana de todo.
¡Soy yo, en mis orillas!
[I dance motionless,
stopped at the margins of myself.
Dizzying stillness . . .
Free of voice and gestures,
I am far from everything.
I am I, on my shores!] - translation by Catherine Bellver (2010)
Nearly forty years later (1967), writing from Mexico, Champourcín addressed God directly:
Todo el mundo olvidándote.
Y Tú, desde el cielo,
amándonos a todos. (XXIII)
[Everyone forgetting You.
And You, from heaven,
loving us all. (XXIII)]*
María Zambrano (1904-1991)
Rosa Chacel (1898-1994)
For philosopher Maria Zambrano and novelist Rose Chacel, the writing life called for self-revelation and self-expression. Both were existentialists, concerned with how a woman gains an existential presence, according to scholar Roberta Johnson.
Chacel and Zambrano were disciples of philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, but they questioned his concept of “vital reason” (razón vital), albeit in different ways, observed scholar Noël Valis. Zambrano transcended the limits of Ortega’s “vital reason” with her own theory of “poetic reason” (razón poética). She said that by revealing truth through one’s personal experiences, a philosopher makes pure knowledge active and meaningful, Johnson wrote, add that Chacel criticized Ortega’s “feminization of women” – for her, women enter culture by means of their rebellion against it.
Chacel sternly eschewed any suggestion that she might be a feminist or a feminine writer, according to The Guardian. She confronted human emotions with the clinical sharpness of a psychiatrist. A strong individualist, a woman of tenacity and authority, she was exacting in both her work and her relationships. A genius who could at times be, as noted in her obituary, “brutally outspoken and almost terrifyingly frank.”
Zambrano began her career as a professor of philosophy in autumn 1930. She struggled to find her own voice and a place for herself and her philosophy in a male-dominated intellectual milieu. Removal from her native Spain in 1939 gave Zambrano the distance from the patriarchal “fatherland” she needed to finally come into her own as a philosopher. According to Johnson, Zambrano, when leaving Madrid during the Civil War, abandoned her notes from Ortega’s classes. One is reminded of her famous phrase, "Amo mi exilio" [“I love my exile”].
For additional research:
To connect with Rosa Chacel and María Zambrano in their own words, check out their Two Confessions.
To immerse yourself in the Spanish social and cultural milieu of Las Sinsombrero, take a look at the following documentary on ProQuest Alexander Street:
The Female Teachers of the Republic, directed by Pilar Pérez Solano, 1967-; produced by Transit Producciones (New York, NY - Brooklyn: Pragda, 2013), 1 hour, 3 mins.
And for a wealth of resources on the Generation of 1927, and Spanish and Latin American literature in general, take a stroll through the ProQuest Bibliografía de la Literatura Española. What forgotten legacies might you might discover?
ÁNGELES GARCÍA. (2010, Jan 28). “El ángel de la modernidad y una de marisco surrealista.” El Pais.
Avant-Garde Cultural Practices in Spain (1914-1936): The Challenge of Modernity (2016). Beaverton: Ringgold Inc.
Bellver, C. (2010). Bodies in Motion: Spanish Vanguard Poetry, Mass Culture, and Gender Dynamics.
Fernández-Medina, N., & Truglio, M. (Eds.). (2016). Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy.
Gooch, A. (1994, Aug 06). “Hard Writing of Spain's Century Cbituary: Rosa Chacel.” The Guardian (Pre-1997 Fulltext).
Johnson, R. (2005). “Carmen laforet, extranjera.” Letras Femeninas, 31(1), 28-29.
Kirkup, J. (1994, Jul 29). “Obituary: Rosa Chacel.” The Independent.
Las Sinsombrero, documentary film, directed by Tània Balló, Serrana Torres, and Manuel Jiménez (2015, Spain).
LORETO SÁNCHEZ, S. (2016, Feb 23). TALENTO OCULTO. El Mundo.
Mangini, S. (2010). Maruja Mallo and the Spanish Avant-Garde.
Romero, L. D., López, G. I., & Imboden, R. C. (Eds.). (2012). Seis siglos de poesía española escrita por mujeres : pautas poéticas y revisiones críticas.
Valis, N., & Maier, C. (2015). Two Confessions.
*Translations by Sandra Hahn.