UPDATE: Visit Maite Zubiaurre's website on her art, trash-collages, and artivist interventions: Trash Art and the Urban. Maite's nom de plume as an artist is Filomena Cruz.

A Virtual Wunderkammer: Early Twentieth Century Erotica in Spain

We are pleased to announce that Maite Zubiaurre’s adaptation and translation into Spanish of Cultures of the EroticCulturas del erotismo en España 1898-1939— was published by Cátedra in 2014. 

Culturas del erotismo (portada)

Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939, to which this website is a companion, was published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2012.

For more information, go to Amazon.com or to Vanderbilt University Press.com


This Website (http://sicalipsis.humnet.ucla.edu) is a companion to the book, Cultures of the Erotic. Spain 1898-1939 (Maite Zubiaurre, Vanderbilt University Press, 2011), in the same way in which the book is a companion to the Website. They enhance each other when they work together.

–Maite Zubiaurre (zubiaurre@ucla.edu)

Digital-Media Archiving, Site Development, Interface, and Site Administration by:
*Wendy Kurtz, PhD Student, Dept. Spanish and Portuguese, UCLA,For technical support, please contact: wpkurtz@ucla.edu

For content-related questions or to submit new media, contact: zubiaurre@ucla.edu


This Website FEATURES:

A brief introduction to early twentieth-century Spanish erotica, also known as “sicalipsis.”

Erotic Magazines: Many of these erotic magazines, such as Sicalíptico, Flirt, and Muchas Gracias are available in the Digital Library of the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. This website provides a series of materials as well as the link to the digitalized erotic periodicals and magazines.

Erotic Novelettes: A selection of erotic novelettes from erotic collections, such as La Novela de Hoy, La Novela Pasional, and La Novela Sugestiva.

Essays on Sexuality, Sexology and Eugenics: This section includes a selection of articles on love and sexuality that were published in Ortega y Gasset’s Revista de Occidente between 1923 and 1936. Among the authors we find Gregorio Marañón, Georg Simmel, Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Corpus Barga, Amparo Parrilla, Ernst Kretschmer, etc. This section also includes sexological treatises from authors such as Suárez Casañ and Martín de Lucenay, as well as a series of articles and talk on Eugenics.

Nudism: Here we find a selection of magazines, books and authobiographical reflections upon nudism, such as the magazines Pentalfa and Biofilia, Laura Brunet’s fictionalized account of German nudism in Desnudismo Integral, and Martín de Lucenay’s sexological treatise on nudity and nudism.

Image Gallery: a selection of visual images on different erotic themes, such as the female bather; the female reader; the female smoker; hysteria; porn cinema; male and female homosexuality, etc. These images appear in postcards in great numbers, but also in ex libris; on the covers and in the illustrations of erotic novelettes; and in the illustrations of erotic magazines.


The main purpose of the book/website is to unearth the wealth of popular erotic materials that animated the urban life of Spain during the first half of the Twentieth Century, and which was later forcefully repressed and thus “forgotten” during the Franco era. By erotic materials I mean a multifarious collection of cultural artifacts, from the erotic novelette, the philosophical essay, the sexological treatise, and the nudist manifesto, to the erotic postcard, the risqué illustration in erotic magazines, and the first manifestation of pornographic cinema.

Spanish popular erotica embraces foreign technology and its inventions to an extent rarely seen in high cultural art and literature. It “imports” modernity in the form of techno-erotic artifacts such as bicycles and typewriters. It also engages modernity and its commodities in an intense and often ambivalent dialogue with tradition and with the production of stereotypically Spanish cultural objects: Spanish majas wearing traditional peinetas made-in-Spain enhance their legs with imported French stockings; dark Spanish beauties leave Andalusia to sit in front of American typewriters in an office in Barcelona or Madrid; sexy middle-class señoritas speed away on German bicycles. Popular erotica is always first to tame these new hybrid creatures made of (imported male) iron and (local female) flesh by converting them into sex objects. Nevertheless, techno-eros ultimately works to the benefit of women. Unlike Spanish high culture (both liberal and conservative), which has a strong preference for traditional female roles and identities and resorts rarely, if at all, to “new” versions of womanhood, popular erotica makes it possible for Spanish women to look beyond the Pyrenees and to seek models in their more advanced and certainly more liberated female counterparts. The same thing occurs in the case of male and female homosexuality, long a taboo topic of high culture: local erotic cultures draw heavily on foreign models.

The erotic cultures of early twentieth century Spain also lead us, inevitably, to reexamine the works of some of the enshrined male figures such as the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and the physician and essayist Gregorio Marañón. We learn, somewhat surprisingly, that they, too, had a great deal to say on the subject of sexuality, but that their work on these topics has been largely ignored in the canonical studies of their ideas. When we project their works on love and sexuality against the backdrop of popular erotic culture we see that even they cannot escape its influence, even as they struggle to react against it.

Our Wunderkammer or Cabinet de Curiosités from early twentieth-century popular erotic culture contains postcards, pornographic images created for the newly popular stereoscope, early films, illustrated erotic novelettes and nudist propaganda together with the earnest tomes of philosophers, doctors and psychologists. Far from being abstract theoretical works, or works which seek to respond to new and often threatening sexual ideas coming from as far away as Vienna and London, our Wunderkammer reveals that the works of Ortega, Marañón and Unamuno were also seeking to respond to a deep rumbling change in Spanish popular culture driven, in part, by popular erotica. Spanish love and sexuality were anything but serious and circumspect in the early twentieth century.

In its real (the book) and virtual (the website) dimension, Cultures of the Erotic/"Virtual Wunderkammer" wants to be a powerful tool for both research and teaching. It offers a wealth of textual and visual materials to anyone interested in erotica produced during what I like to call “the 'other' Silver Age.” The “official” Silver Age (1898-1939) only takes high cultural figures and phenomena under its wings, leaving any form of popular culture aside. And It is particularly merciless vis-a-vis the erotic materials this website wants to rescue.

Without further ado, I invite the user to enter the Virtual Wunderkammer. He is more than welcome to comment on what he finds, and encouraged to enrich our sicaliptic collection with further artifacts.

First, two brief sections on 1) Sicalipsis and 2) The Two Spains and a Third Spain, which are useful to understanding the nature of early twentieth century erotica in its cultural and sociological context:


According to María Moliner’s Dictionary of Spanish Usage (Diccionario del uso del español), the overly burlesque term of “sicalíptico” derives from the Greek words sykon (vulva) and aleiptikós (arousing). Apparently, at first, “sicalipsis” and “sicalíptico” applied to only “slightly” erotic texts and illustrations, as well as to only mildly “liberated” women. However, with the passing of time, “sicalipsis” opened its scope, and encompassed eroticism (and women) in all its gradations, from watered-down romance and flirtatious coquettes and demi-vierges, to hard-core sex, professional prostitutes, and hard-core pornography.

Also, sicalípsis as Amando de Miguel reminds us, is another word for ars amandi. In Spain with its repressive stance regarding sex, the “art of love” emphasized the endless delay of coitus and orgasmic experience (“orgasm” and “orgasmic” were rarely used the literary-erotic vocabulary of the period; the preferred terms were “spasm” and “spasmodic”). The art of coital delay, on the other hand, is no trivial matter, since repression and postponement of sexual gratification has always been the true mother of erotic representations. As Wenceslao Fernández Flórez puts it with great irony, “Spain writes erotic novels because love is still an unobtainable adventure–or at least, a very infrequent one. In this country, any literature that has to do with love has the same attraction that travel books had during the times when travelling was a daring undertaking and people barely knew their own cities” (6).

The third meaning of sicalipsis was “erotic invasion,” specifically referring to the sudden proliferation of erotica at the end of the nineteenth century in Spain, and well into the thirties of the following century. Javier Rioyo describes the sicaliptic craze and erotic liberation in a manner that reminds us of the equally effervescent eruption of sexuality and eroticism during the first years after Franco’s death, known to Spaniards and connoisseurs of Spanish culture as the period of “la movida (madrileña)” and “el destape”: “Perverted sexuality gets horny. It becomes festive, throws itself into the maelstrom, takes off its corset, its maillot, its stockings, its panties; it strips. Madrid becomes ‘civilized’ in the Parisian style; it liberates itself from its Moulin Rouge complex and creates its own cathedrals of sin. Madrid, which was already hot, gets ready for the inferno: the 20th century is ready to burn. Long live squallid, the sicaliptic and the syphilitic! Only savage peoples are strangers to syphilis. The destape arrives with more force than the gonococcus.”

I use the term “sicalipsis” predominantly in this third sense to highlight the explosion of erotic artifacts and discourses on sexuality that infused Spanish popular culture during the Silver Age when Spain had a fully stocked erotic Wunderkammer that included a wide variety of erotic artifacts, ranging from hilarious indecency to the more somber aspects of sexuality. For, although Javier Rioyo’s account shows sicalipsis at its most frivolous, reducing Spain’s “new” erotic museum to a whimsical collection of playful sex acts and lingerie (corsets, maillots, stockings, and underwear!), there is a more intellectual, as well as a more circumspect, even sinister, side to sicalipsis. The obsession with venereal diseases (here, Spain was very “European,” as Rioyo indicates) generated a rich hybrid literature of moral, cautionary tales full of medical terms and medical treatises voicing stern admonitions of an ethical-religious nature. These admonitions were an efficient and not altogether innocent strategy to reinforce the belief that “sick” and “bad” meant the same. Patients were sinners, and in a more compassionate twist, sinners were “just” sick people. In the words of naturalist writer Eduardo López Bago, “there are many wicked people who in reality are just mentally ill” (La soltera, 1886: 121). More than forty years later, psychiatrist César Juarros, a radical thinker in many ways, and one of the very few Spanish followers of Freudian psychoanalysis, clings to a similar thesis: “The understanding that perverts aren’t but unfortunate individuals who are incapable of finding pleasure following the easy path of normal people and who are obliged to look for shortcuts that are steep, tortuous, and cruel must become more general” (1932: 15).


The theory that Spain arrived in modernity as two Spains –a liberal Spain and a conservative Spain whose absolute and intransigent opposition led ultimately to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)– has long been a commonplace of modern Spanish historiography. The present book does not dispute the existence of an ongoing conflict between a liberal, anticlerical, and Europeanist Spain and a conservative, Catholic, and nationalist Spain in the early years of the twentieth-century. I am much more interested here, however, in a different division. I seek to distinguish between the “visible” high-cultural Spain that dominates histories of the period and a “ghostly” mass-cultural Spain, the almost entirely forgotten site of popular erotic cultural production. Leftists and right-wingers alike created and consumed popular erotica. Thus erotica constitute a location of culture where the dualism of standard historiographies breaks down. As it turns out, so-called “liberal Spain” is often as staunchly conservative and “un-European” in its attitudes toward sexual matters as is its political opposition. Conversely, “Conservative Spain” showed itself to be far more sexually open and sophisticated than is usually acknowledged. Cultures of the Erotic argues that there was yet a “third Spain,” arising from the site of Spanish popular erotica and sexual (pseudo-) science. It cuts a different cross-section through the dualist historiographies of the period and gives us a new lens through which to view the social conflicts of the period. This “third Spain” frees us from the familiarly canonical view of this culture as dominated by a handful of high-profile male figures who arrived, miraculously, already pre-packaged in “generations.” (1898, 1914, 1927). Our third Spain cuts across class and gender, and bridges the divide between high and low culture. It brings into focus a new early twentieth-century Spain, one both eager for and resistant to new sexual mores and ideas arriving from Europe.

Although the two Spains—the chaste and the erotic—were discordant, they nonetheless passionately conversed with each other, and, each in its way, struggled to come to terms with (European) modernity. The two images below (Figs. 1 & 2) indicate even better than words the very different auras emanating from the two contrasting countries.  

Portrait of Alvaro Retana            Migues de Unamuno

Figs. 1 & 2

Readers versed in Spanish letters will have no difficulty in identifying philosopher, essayist, novelist, and poet Miguel de Unamuno, depicted in Daniel Vázquez Díaz’s famous portrait (Fig. 2). The much less familiar face above (Fig. 1) is rather enigmatic and is faintly reminiscent of well-known photographs of homosexual poet Federico García Lorca. The young man hugs his face between his hands, as if he were holding a delicate, porcelain mask. Under carefully outlined eyebrows, his dramatic, very black, and heavily made-up eyes musingly look at the viewer. He is unmistakably handsome, with his soft, oval face, and his harmonious features. A signature, written diagonally across the portrait, identifies him as “Álvaro Retana.” But, who is Álvaro Retana? Why do his face and mellow features stand in such stark contrast to Unamuno’s characteristic half-profile, with its pronounced cheekbones, prominent nose, and deep facial crevasses? Retana looks straight at us, with a mixture of melancholy and coquettishness, while Unamuno’s eyes, oblivious to the viewer, seem lost in somber meditation. Unamuno’s mouth is set in a stern downward curve, barely visible between beard and mustache. Retana’s face, however, showcases full, delicately outlined lips and a rather feminine mouth. According to his own proud proclamation, Álvaro Retana was “el novelista más guapo del mundo.” [the most handsome novelist in the world]. Although he was the author and illustrator of many erotic novelettes, a skilled fashion designer, a successful publicist, and the songwriter and composer of some of the most famous cuplés (“Ven y ven” [Come, come to me], “La Tirana del Trípili” [The Tyrantess of the Trípili], “Batallón de modistillas” [The Battalion of the Couture Designers], and “Las tardes del Ritz” [Afternoons at the Ritz]), Alvaro Retana has been almost completely ignored by literary and cultural criticism.

At the tender age of 13, Álvaro Retana fell in love with the famous singer “La Fornarina.” Faithful to his youthful passion for cupleteras, he had what he called “experimental marriages” with three of them (Luisa de Lerma, Lina Valery, Nena Rubens). None of this, however, kept him from multiple affairs with men or from being courted by a solicitous entourage of young (sometimes extremely young!) male and female admirers. Álvaro Retana, who had himself portrayed on his the covers of his novels with a rose-embroidered kimono, plucked eyebrows, and made-up eyes, cruised the warm nights of the Spanish capital in the company of other notorious homosexual writers and artists of the period. Among them were his school friend and painter, José Zamora, who illustrated many of Retana’s novelettes, the writers Antonio de Hoyos y Vinent, Pedro de Répide, Jacinto Benavente, and Federico García Lorca, the ultraist poets Ramón Prieto, Jaime Ibarra, and Rafael Lasso de la Vega y Castilla.Unlike the “high culture” male writers, he was also friends with women intellectuals such as Carmen de Burgos, and Gloria Laguna, “una conocida lesbiana, epigramática, pizpireta y algo varonil, llamada ‘la Benavente femenina’” [a known lesbian, epigrammatic, coquettish and somewhat manly, known as ‘the female Benavente’] (Rioyo 315).

The Unamunos, as Retana with pungent irony called the circumspect members of the intellectual elites, were very familiar with the aforementioned Bohemian crowd and its flamboyant way of life. Although history seems to have forgotten, they constantly met on the streets of Madrid, and were regular clients of the same cafés, cabarets, and theaters.Politics also affected them in similar ways. For example, both Álvaro Retana and Miguel de Unamuno had to endure the rigors of repressive politics and cultural censorship. Unamuno was forced into exile and Retana suffered brief incarceration. None of this, however, produced the expected results. Undeterred by Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, which, compared to the fascist tyrannies that soon strangled Europe, was much closer to a dictablanda (soft dictatorship) than to a dictadura (real or “hard” dictatorship), Unamuno continued writing incendiary diatribes against the Spanish government. And, before long, Retana was out of prison and back to publishing the deliciously erotic novelettes that had put him behind bars in the first place.

However, similarities between the two public figures end there and I return to the differences so evident in the two portraits. Retana’s world was like his white powdered face: carefully made up, of a highly refined frivolity, ambiguously gendered, sexually uninhibited, lovingly committed to farce, and, most of all, allergic to solemnity and stolid values. It was a world reminiscent of the kitsch and camp of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, a strident joie de vivre, and, as in Almodóvar’s movies, unable entirely to disguise the concomitant presence of suffering and anguish. The specter of syphilis was very much alive at the turn of the twentieth century, as is AIDS at the turn of the twenty-first. It is this world –Retana’s world– and this, sicaliptic, third Spain that our Wunderkammer seeks to collect and to explore.