Saturday, May 21

A century of American fascination with Spanish Holy Week

Throughout these days, the shocking images of the processions of Spanish cities and towns are once again making their way onto the front pages of international newspapers and their digital editions, after two years of abstinence from parades —not Easter as a time liturgical – that the global pandemic has forced. One wonders how some of the main headlines in the United States —The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post— also do not skimp on space to collect the distant drama that is represented in the streets of the most remote locations in our country. A strong clue may lie in the reaction that young American students often experience when they visit some of the local Passion museums. Before the images that the brotherhoods process until the next Easter Sunday, all kinds of feelings are unleashed except indifference: fascination, surprise, stupefaction, horror… and even tears.

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It is the so-called cultural impact caused by the Spanish way of life and customs. In the case of the United States, one of the first symptoms of the disease discovered by a series of intellectuals at the end of the 19th century, which they called “Spanish fever”, nothing to do with the flu that would claim millions of lives in the final stretch of the Great War. No, it was not, in itself, an ailment that could be consulted in a medical treatise. But, as defined by the American Hispanist Richard Kagan, it consisted rather of an insatiable appetite for Spanish art and culture that, in the most serious cases, could lead to the phenomenon of “Hispanophilia”.

That fever incubated throughout the nineteenth century ended up being unleashed just after the Spanish-American war was settled, which would force Spain to get rid of its last colonies —Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines— in 1898. Until then, for the Americans, Spain was a country decadent of which there was hardly any news, except for the negative influence that, since the conquest of the New World, had been giving off the harmful propaganda of the Spanish black legend. Only a year later, one of the best American sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, headed to Spain to see if what a friend had warned him about – his compatriot of his, the painter John Singer Sargent – ​​was true or not. After traveling from north to south, from Burgos and Toledo to Andalusia, Saint-Gaudens not only verified the existence of that particular “Spanish fever”, but also fell victim to its power of seduction.

According to Kagan, the sculptor experienced an insatiable curiosity about the culture and art of “a fascinating land”. It was a new Spain, the one that the American romantic writer Washington Irving had already described as a “hospitable” and “picturesque” country, which had been able to preserve customs, traditions and ways of life from many centuries ago, making them compatible with progress . “A land of castles,” says Richard Kagan in his book The Spanish Craze: America’s fascination with the Hispanic world, 1779-1939—, of elegant gentlemen, gypsy dancers and strong peasants with typical dresses”.

Furor for the Spanish

The unusual fever was strange, because in the United States hardly anything Spanish was known, beyond the furor that the paintings of Baroque masters, such as José de Ribera or Diego Velázquez, were beginning to cause. Suddenly, Spanish was funny. Or said in modern language, Spain “sold”. Thomas Alva Edison dedicated one of the first films in history to the performances of La Carmencita, a Spanish flamenco dancer who delighted audiences in New York and Chicago, in an extraordinary document now digitized on YouTube. The boom also infected heritage. The architect Stamford White, prone to the design of historicist buildings of Spanish origin, did not hesitate to crown the reform of Madison Square Garden, the auditorium located in the middle of Manhattan, with a replica of the Seville Giralda.

Spain may have been a decadent country in the eyes of Americans, but that perspective could not cover up a surprising and seductive past. In fact, that was the conclusion drawn by the theory that the historian William Prescott had successfully spread since the early nineteenth century. His famous “paradigm” identified the evils of our country, weighed down —he argued— by the monarchical absolutism imposed by the Austrians after the outstanding time of the Catholic Monarchs and religious fanaticism, unleashed since then and embodied by the excesses of the Inquisition . His theory was concretized in a paradox: Spain represented decline and lack of freedom, while the United States brought the opposite values ​​to the world: economic prosperity, trade development and the benefits of democracy. In short, America was the new thing; Spain, the old.

That was how the Americans discovered that what really interested them in Spain was its past. The heritage, culture, art, and customs that had inoculated the United States with “Spanish fever” came from as far back as the Middle Ages. A phenomenon that, together with the economic strength of the country, gave rise to the black stage of the art trade: the great tycoons wanted to get hold of a piece of that picturesque country located between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It was the captivating Spain of Romanesque and Gothic buildings, of the coexistence between Christians and Muslims, of people whose ways of life had been frozen in time and now appeared, practically intact, in modernity. This last detail was the one that ended up convincing some of the most influential Hispanists caught up in the “Spanish fever”. And one in particular, Archer Milton Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society of America (HSA) in 1904.

a child’s museum

“I think a museum is the most important thing in the world.” The phrase, collected in Huntington’s biography, would not be surprising if it did not come from a 12-year-old boy. In the mind of the young heir to the American railroad empire, the idea of ​​a center that would disseminate Hispanic culture was already being forged. In fact, at 14 he began learning Spanish, and while still a teenager he embarked on several trips to Europe and Latin America. In 1892, when he was barely twenty years old, he made his dream come true: to discover Spain. The discovery changed all the mental schemes that he had been forging during years of study. In that initiatory experience, following the historical and legendary footsteps of the Cid and the complex Spanish cultural mix, he realized that what he was really looking for was very far from the cities: it was the knowledge of the towns, of the rural areas —where the customs and life of the people had come to a standstill—a personal investigation to which he would devote much of his life.

After the death of his father, Archer Milton Huntington had the capital of the inheritance to found, in 1904, the institution that currently preserves the largest collection of Spanish heritage outside our borders: the Hispanic Society opened its doors to the west of Manhattan. The objective of its promoter was clear. Huntington wanted to bring together the widest possible representation of Spanish culture, folklore and art to put it, selflessly, at the service of researchers. For this, he considered it essential to approach its greatest exponents. Known is his close personal relationship with the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla, to whom he commissioned a set of paintings that reflected, precisely, the exoticism that Americans saw in Spanish traditions. Hence, Sorolla did not hesitate to include scenes from Holy Week in Seville in the collection that he gave to the philanthropist in 1914.

Huntington’s crusade needed to nourish the increasingly overflowing shelves of the Hispanic with documentary collections. To do this, and with absolutely cutting-edge criteria for the time, he surrounded himself with women to whom he would entrust the conservation work in the library, the museum and the rest of the departments. For this reason, he also entrusted one of the institution’s crucial tasks to a woman: the photographer Ruth Matilda Anderson would become Huntington’s eyes in the Spain that Sorolla had previously portrayed. Anderson had to travel through the Spanish towns to portray “the traditional trades”, the “festive events” or the “religious ceremonies”, asserts Professor Noemí Espinosa in her doctoral thesis on the photographer. In the processions of Holy Week in Seville, Valladolid, Asturias or Gran Canaria, the American portraitist would find some of the most valuable material of her long career.

discovery of drama

Thus, in 1926 Ruth Anderson and her adventure partner Frances Spalding undertook an expedition that would become a milestone for the institution and for themselves. It was unusual – not to say that it seemed crazy at the time – for two women, alone, to rent a vehicle and drive through the most remote villages. With deep religious beliefs and as if it were an evangelizing mission, Anderson baptized that vehicle with the name of “Our Lady” and placed in the loading area a kind of “ark of the covenant” that, instead of the tables of Moisés, would guard the heavy and delicate photographic equipment. Those seven months between Galicia and what is now Castilla y León brought more than two thousand photographs to the Hispanic and one of the most intense discoveries in Anderson’s career.

The photographer, after her usual and meticulous documentation work, chose the city of Zamora to fulfill the assignment. In the area “he once again located examples of a way of life that was progressively being abandoned and that he considered the traces, the trace of a lost tradition that he insisted on discovering and photographing no matter how insignificant they were, Huntington had asked him to do so,” he says. the historian Espinosa. Instead, as her boss, the reality she encountered blew her work scheme upside down. After immortalizing the people of Zamora en masse following in the footsteps of Holy Week, she left the capital and went to a town located about thirty kilometers away to continue pursuing her great goal, to find “authenticity”.

What he found in the procession of the town of Villalcampo and the staging of an auto sacramental – the drama of the Passion performed by residents of the town – was exactly what a couple of decades earlier had left his boss, the class, speechless. of life frozen in the past that excited Americans and, ultimately, one of the most decisive viruses of “Spanish fever” in the United States. Anderson found living vestiges of the past, both in that theatrical performance, and in the spectators, neighbors climbed on cars and trees, on tiptoe so as not to miss a detail of the event. Although not without reticence, he interviewed the participants and questioned the women as repositories of rural traditions. His notes glossed over the series of photographs of Villalcampo which, if it was not the highest quality —in the opinion of the experts, the snapshots of Asturias represented the zenith of the reporter— they did represent a milestone in the findings of Ruth Anderson and of the own Hispanic.

It was the twenties and, after monopolizing an important part of buildings, works of art, coffered ceilings, tapestries and all kinds of vestiges, the “Spanish fever” would begin to subside in the United States. After filling the halls of the Hispanic and although the photographic campaigns continued, Huntington would consider his compilation work accomplished in the following decades. The fascination with Spanish customs – and Holy Week had all the ingredients – would be perpetuated in North America for a century. To the present day.