Years ago, Maite Zubiaurre stepped into an antique shop in Madrid and came across a photo album full of erotic and pornographic imagery from the early 1900s. To the UCLA professor, this was a monumental find—what she held in her hands confirmed a hunch: “After many years of teaching the history and culture of early 20th century Spain, and the somber philosophers and thinkers of the so-called ‘Generation of 98’ who, in their writings, lament the decadence of Spain and the decline of Spanish imperialist ‘glory’ after the loss of its last colonies in 1898, I asked myself the following questions: Surely not all could have been so dire and somber during that early 20th century period in my country. After all, these were the roaring 20s all over Europe and the United States, and beyond—what happened to all the vibrant social and cultural innovations that were taking the Western world by assault, particularly in the realm of sexuality and Eros? Did sexology and psychoanalysis, for example, cross the barrier of the Pyrenees?”
The album pointed to the period’s rich erotic culture, which was later quashed under Franco’s fascist rule. She set out to find more examples: “It took at least ten years of painstaking archival work and visits to private archives, dusty provincial libraries, inconspicuous antique shops and second hand bookstores,” she tells The Creators Project in an email. “Materials were hard to find because censorship was brutal and often quite efficient during the Francoist dictatorship, and materials were not only heavily censored, but also banned from libraries and archives and destroyed—not only by authorities, but by the private owners [...] who feared incarceration.”
The wealth of materials that Zubiaurre amassed—which includes erotic magazines, photographs, illustrations, postcards, short films, and novelettes, as well as texts on nudism and sexology—is collected in her book, Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939, and its accompanying website. It is a “veritable Wunderkammer,” she writes. “Spanish popular erotica is not only extremely rich and multifarious, but also refreshingly disinhibited in its textual and visual representations, often openly and crassly anticlerical, and extremely well-versed in all forms of ‘non-reproductive’ love, from masturbatory practices to all forms of homosexual and queer love.”
Leafing through Zubiaurre’s wunderkammer, it quickly becomes obvious that materials were exclusively geared to the male gaze. “Nobody cared about satisfying the sexual needs of women,” she remarks. “Whatever pleasure women derived from it was unintentional and tangential.” Nonetheless, erotic novelettes, to the extent that they functioned as “exercises in sexual pedagogy,” offered opportunities for women to explore their sexuality.
The archive offers a window into the era’s burgeoning modernity and the anxieties that accompany change. Bicycles and typewriters appear constantly, because they are “dangerous,” explains Zubiaurre. “They offer women freedom, mobility, and access to the public sphere. Sure enough, anxiety-ridden misogyny is quick to counterattack, and resorts to the usual tactics, namely, to try to disempower women by turning them into sex objects, and cyclists and typists into whores.” Yet Zubiaurre argues that these depictions, no matter how sexualized, nonetheless inspired Spanish women to embrace empowering role models—the fearless cyclist, the liberated typist—and, happily, sparked a kind of accidental feminism.
You can further explore Maite Zubiaurre’s wunderkammer here.