Fashion, Ekphrasis, and the Avant-Garde Novel: Carmen de Burgos’s La mujer fantástica (1924)

Rebecca M. Bender 

Kansas State University


Although both historians and literary scholars have foregrounded the social consciousness of prolific Spanish author Carmen de Burgos, or “Colombine” (1867-1932), particularly in terms of her engagement with feminist issues like marriage and divorce, women’s education, and labor reform, still little attention has been paid to her less socially-compromised narrative fiction. Specifically, her 1924 novel La mujer fantástica, in which a perpetually dissatisfied, self-proclaimed “fantastic” female protagonist travels throughout Europe in search of love, fame, and eternal youth, has received virtually no critical attention. (1) Yet this novel is a curious fusion of traditional or popular narrative strategies and innovative avant-garde features, and its engagement with themes such as modern femininity, cosmopolitanism, and contemporary taboos like abortion, divorce, prostitution, and homoerotic relationships, merits further critical study. To open this conversation, this essay will examine the novel’s depiction of an aspect of culture that intersects with various aspects of modernity: fashion (la moda), particularly as it relates to both women’s self-representation and the Spanish Avant-garde. My analysis will demonstrate how Burgos employs ekphrastic principles to establish a connection between fashion and the fine arts, thus narrativizing her argument in her 1922 women’s manual, El arte de ser mujer, that the multifarious facets of female fashion – including dress selection, makeup, hairstyles, accessories, and even perfume combinations (all part of the toilette) – deserve consideration as complex and admirable forms of modern art, comparable to painting, architecture, and music (37-38) (2). Despite literary scholars’ claims that Burgos remained at the margins of the Spanish Avant-garde (3), La mujer fantástica’s facetious tone and ambiguous interartistic references in fact serve as clever literary devices that create a hybrid novel replete with paradox: it is both playful and erudite; popular and exclusive; superficial and serious. On the one hand, it celebrates aspects of modern, cosmopolitan life and innovation, fitting within what Peter Bürger has referred to as avant-garde art’s tendency to break with the past and insert itself into the absolute present, the “praxis of life” (22). Yet on the other hand, the work is imbued with playful, suggestive, and ambiguous artistic and historical references that bring to mind José Ortega y Gasset’s description of arte nuevo as a game or irony, lacking in all transcendence (24) In fact, as I argue here, La mujer fantástica exhibits nearly all of the characteristics of avant-garde art (in a literary context) set forth by Ortega y Gasset, with the notable exception of the two principles most closely associated with explicit “deshumanización.” (4). Thus by capturing material aspects of the fleeting present through detailed descriptions of fashion and urbanity, while at the same time developing a ludic meditation on art, La mujer fantástica becomes a paragon of the contradictory, hybrid nature of avant-garde activity in Spain. (5).

To summarize briefly, La mujer fantástica follows the adventures of a female protagonist, Elena, as she progresses from a young girl of about twenty to an older, middle-aged woman. A notable lack of precise temporal references makes it difficult to perceive the passage of time, but several clues suggest that Elena is possibly approaching fifty by the end of the novel. This would imply a twenty- or thirty-year time span within the tale; however, the narrative maintains the illusion of a constant present, featuring episodes that seemingly always occur in the 1920s, or at least during the early decades of the twentieth century. Significantly, while the action takes place across numerous cities and countries throughout Europe, including Switzerland, Germany, and France, not a single event or encounter actually unfolds in Spain. These non-Spanish settings are crucial, as Bieder has noted, given the quantity of social taboos that comprise the experiences and dialogues that propel the narrative progress and characterize the protagonist (254-55). Such illicit content also reflects an important tenet of avant-garde identity and production: to scandalize bourgeois society (Kirkpatrick 227). In La mujer fantástica, a teenage Elena elopes with her boyfriend; she aborts her subsequent (and secret) pregnancy with the help of French prostitutes when he abandons her in Paris; she marries solely and unabashedly for money; she maintains a lengthy affair with a young, penniless musician; she remarries a much older, renowned theater star, whom she subsequently betrays; she discusses suicide and cocaine with her best friend; and she ultimately becomes enamored with a very young female companion. During the entire narrative, the fashionable yet fickle Elena desperately seeks attention, admiration, and the approval of others, first traveling between cities and countries and before traversing the streets of Paris. She seeks nothing more than to fulfill her vain desire of becoming a renowned and celebrated public figure – to find her ideal “role” (papel) within her particular cultural and social milieu. As such, Elena is an irreverent and complicated woman who breaks with tradition and resists external expectations. She is at times “unlikeable,” and her iconoclastic self-positioning compares to the inventive, irreverent goals of the most revolutionary of avant-garde manifestos (6). As the narrative action advances, an avant-garde literary style comes to the fore, particularly through the descriptions of cosmopolitan cities like Paris and Geneva, as well as through the celebration of inventive objects of modernity and technology. Yet most noteworthy in terms of its relevance to fashion, the central focus of this essay, is the attention given to the fine arts. Literature, theater, music, sculpture, and painting all feature prominently, creating a veritable interartistic pastiche. Indeed, the artistic references that Burgos employs throughout La mujer fantástica breathe new life into the apparent simplicity or frivolity of the plot structure, affording the educated reader a foray into a variety of cultures and historical eras. This barrage of intertextual, interartistic, and international references again fits within the tendencies of the Spanish Avant-garde, which exhibited a distinctly international character and a hybridity born of the “confusion” of different, even contradictory attitudes and elements from abroad (Harris 3-4).

Before delving into the narrative, it is necessary to identify and define the ekphrastic principles that will guide the present analysis of novel’s fashion-art nexus. Though predominantly associated with poetry, literary scholars have demonstrated that ekphrastic principles are also prevalent in prose (Cole; de Armas; Persin; Yacobi). In the most basic terms, ekphrasis is the literary representation of a visual art object, such as a painting or a sculpture; it is essentially the practice of putting into language what is typically observed or captured with the eyes. However, Tamar Yacobi argues that this simple, traditional definition – “a description of a work of art” – is both too general and too specific, failing to capture all cases of ekphrasis and perhaps omitting some of the most interesting and dynamic ones (21). Concerning Spanish literature, Frederick de Armas has identified a variety of types of ekphrasis, each capable of communicating complex meanings and creating nuanced literary portraiture. Relative to this essay is de Armas’s definition of “allusive ekphrasis,” which he refers to as subtly transgressive, given that the work of art is not actually described in a traditional mimetic sense, nor is a narrative created from its image; on the contrary, “the novelist simply refers to a painter, a work of art, or even to a feature that may apply to a work of art. This becomes ekphrasis only in the mind of the reader… who can view the work in his memory and imagination” (22). This deceptively simple artistic reference creates, in the words of de Armas, “a mnemonic and visual effect that has the ability to make words capacious” (22). This evocative technique is fitting for Burgos, who had expressed disdain for lengthy, unnecessary descriptions in narrative, preferring instead the visual cues prompted more easily by theatrical representation and imagination: “En la novela la descripción es enojosa; pero en la escena todo ese mundo vive, se levanta de su sueño… Gracias a la evocación vemos las cosas que han sido y nos compenetramos con ellas (El arte 129).

Correspondingly, Brian Cole identifies allusive ekphrasis as a common feature of Spanish avant-garde novels, emphasizing that “the reader is expected to have background knowledge of these artists in order to fully understand what the author communicates” in the literary text (146) (7). In order to produce the desired effect, allusive ekphrasis depends on requisite knowledge; yet, not all readers are privy to the necessary, relevant insights. This particular brand of ekphrasis, therefore, exemplifies the divisive tendency of new art (arte nuevo) identified by José Ortega y Gasset in his 1925 essay La deshumanización del arte: “Lo característico del arte nuevo… es que divide al público en estas dos clases de hombres: los que lo entienden y los que no lo entienden… El arte nuevo, por lo visto, no es para todo el mundo” (13). Like metaphor – a rhetorical device that avant-garde poets privileged – ekphrasis allows writers like Burgos to play with language and challenge standardized perceptions of reality in narrative. As Gregori and Herrero-Senés explain, avant-garde authors create texts that require “a strong decoding effort” and demand “a reader/spectator who was active and willing to face the challenge posed by the texts” (7). To fully comprehend La mujer fantástica, readers must call upon their knowledge of European art, particularly portraiture, and its corresponding cultural history. It is revealing, then, that shortly after the novel’s publication Burgos described it as “un texto que yo siempre consideré como adelantado a su tiempo” (qtd. in Utrera 395), a sign that the nuanced, perceptual challenges she posed to her readers by way of allusive ekphrasis were perhaps not entirely apprehended (8).

With these considerations of ekphrasis and the Spanish Avant-garde in mind, the present textual analysis will first highlight allusive ekphrases that appear throughout La mujer fantástica, before turning to those particularly relevant to fashion. Ekphrastic moments in the text include a reference to the late nineteenth-century Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin that brings to life a landscape Elena admires while on vacation in Germany (46) (9); Elena’s mention of a seventeenth-century “retrato de Richilieu,” which she uses to characterize and describe a member of the French aristocracy on whom she casts her gaze and “instinto de conquista” in a Paris café (102) (10); portraits and sketches by Jean-Batiste Isabey (1767-1855), which are ekphrastically detailed with an attention to fashion and clothing (200) (11); and an equestrian portrait of Louis XIV, flanked by landscape paintings, which graces the walls of an eighteenth-century Paris hotel (220). Furthermore, references to sculpture and mythology function as additional implicit or allusive ekphrases, often serving to characterize or describe women: “Una Juno que se escapó de un Museo para vestirse a la moda y venir aquí” (14); “Mira…si esa criselefantina no es más bella que tu estatua de mármol” (15); “Pensaba que bastaría presentarse para conseguir el triunfo, lo semejante a la Frine convenciendo con su belleza (86) (12);” “resaltaba… su puro perfil de Donatello” (212). With these frequent allusions to painting, portraiture, and sculpture, Burgos creates a bona fide art museum in narrative form. Yet notably absent from this literary art gallery is the figure of Venus that so captivated the imagination of male avant-garde artists, especially surrealists (13). Fragmented and nude, the Venus de Milo represented the epitome of classical feminine beauty and became the muse of male avant-garde poets and painters. Robert Spires has suggested that male artists turned to historical and canonized models of femininity as a sort of “comfort zone” that provided reassurance in the face of new, disquieting, even threatening female images that surfaced in the 1920s and 1930s (206). But Burgos, as a “Pro-Republican feminist” (Johnson, Gender, 224) or “feminist avante le lettre” (Ugarte), created dynamic and lifelike representations of complex women who did not fit within such traditional molds. Instead, her characters represent a more complete, whole idea of womanhood by becoming active, creative, self-articulating subjects, rather than remaining passive as silent, inanimate, objectified models of corporal beauty.

Such multifaceted depictions of women begin on the very first page of La mujer fantástica, where Burgos inserts a suggestive allusive ekphrasis that immediately establishes the intimate connection between fashion and the fine arts that will permeate the ensuing narrative. In this opening scene, while three young sisters await the arrival of Elena, the unidentified third-person narrator describes these “tres princesitas de novelas” (3, 7) as they prepare for an evening out: “Las tres eran bonitas, graciosas; parecían tres damitas del Segundo Imperio, escapadas de un cuadro de Winterhalter” (5). For an informed reader, this concise description is pregnant with visual imagery and historical and cultural contexts that paradoxically clarify and complicate, as we shall see, the representations and characterizations of women in the novel. The artist to which Burgos makes reference – Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-73) – was a German painter known for his portraits of European royalty. He was especially renowned as the painter of the French Courts during the Second French Empire of the mid- to late-nineteenth century (1852-70), a historical fact Burgos recognizes within her ekphrastic language. In addition to Winterhalter’s renown as the German “painter of princes, and prince of painters” (Kessler-Aurish 225), his legacy is most closely associated with his portraits of women, particularly his ability to capture the complexity of his female subjects (Straub 50-52). His work became much more than portraiture, however, and was intimately connected to fashion and the diffusion of his era’s fashionable trends. Two of Winterhalter’s most famous paintings, for example, are Empress Eugénie and Her Ladies-in-Waiting, completed in 1855 and regarded as his great masterpiece (Kessler-Aurish, et al 162); and the royal portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria or “Sisi,” which was completed ten years later in 1865.

Both Eugenia and Elisabeth were admired for their beauty and poise, but it was Eugenia – a Spanish countess-turned French Empress upon her marriage to Napoleon III (14) – who was revered for her beauty, refined sense of fashion, and exquisite taste in clothing during the Second French Empire, a time when an increasingly cosmopolitan Paris was rapidly transforming into a center of European fashion and fine arts. Mirja Straub explains that Eugenia “made the Paris court a hub of fashion” (54) and, in the words of Ludovic Cazettes, “what [Eugenia] wore and how she dressed her hair became all the rage.” Eugenia’s alternate role as what might be considered an early fashion model is essential for understanding the symbolic weight of Burgos’ references to nineteenth-century Parisian art, fashion, or royalty. In several instances in the novel, Burgos explicitly names Empress Eugenia, always in a manner that links Elena, “la mujer fantástica,” to this particularly revered female historical figure. During one of her lengthy toilette sessions, for example, Elena refers directly to the empress and her particular “look” when she declares: “Me gustan las cejas a lo emperatriz Eugenia” (92). Within the narrative context, it is possible to consider this statement as yet another, even subtler allusive ekphrasis, given that the most popular and fashionable images of the young Empress at the height of the Second Empire would have been linked to portraiture rather than photography. One of the most widely copied and circulated paintings of Eugenia was an official state portrait painted by Winterhalter in 1853, shortly after she became Empress of France: Empress Eugénie (Kessler-Aurisch 14-16). Additionally, towards the end of the novel, Elena recounts her memories of parties, romantic escapades, and “toilettes magníficas” to a young female acquaintance, and the unidentified, observing narrator suggests a disconnect between her actual experiences and her own self-rendering: “Se diría que hablaba de otra mujer, de una especie de Emperatriz Eugenia” (215). This gap in perception demonstrates how the self-constructed persona that Elena so values, defined by fashion, luxury, and a high social status, is neither appreciated nor understood by those outside her intimate circle, as they fail to see, or even ignore, Elena’s personal and self-conscious agency.

The ekphrastic association that Burgos establishes between Elena and Eugenia in La mujer fantástica is crucial for understanding the protagonist’s fascination with fashion trends, make-up, and a constantly changing wardrobe, in terms that do not reduce these habits to mere frivolity. Eugenia was an exceptional historical figure, and her death in Madrid in 1920 inspired Burgos to publish a short biography of the Empress this same year: “La Emperatriz Eugenia: su vida” (15). In the introduction to this narrativized portrait of the Empress, Burgos highlights her political influence, intelligence, and Spanish heritage, describing her as “la española, porque ella fué la española por excelencia… Tenía toda la característica de España, tenía en su carácter gérmenes de nuestro carácter. Era enérgica, altiva, apasionada, vehemente, impetuosa, ligera, devota, supersticiosa y abnegada. Era muy mujer” (n.p.). Certainly the Empress’s dress, or self-presentation, would have effectively communicated these traits to the public, and Burgos reveals was acutely attuned to Eugenia’s style and fashionable taste. When she published her treatise on women’s fashion and make-up in 1920, for example, Colombine not only recognized the Second Empire’s fashion and style, but made a point to describe Eugenia’s wedding dress in detail (16). She also includes a chapter in Eugenia’s short biography entitled “La Emperatriz de la moda,” opening this section with a dedication to the empress’s association with fashion: “El mayor triunfo de Eugenia de Montijo no fue solo reinar en Francia, sino en el mundo, imponiendo la moda. Una mujer española tuvo el cetro de la elegancia en Francia, entre las mujeres que tienen fama de ser las más elegantes del mundo” (n.p.). In addition to detailing the Empress’s elaborate royal dressing rooms, her role in popularizing trends like the crinoline or hoop skirt (miriñaque), dresses with trains (trajes de cola), and hairstyles with bangs (flequillo), Burgos notes the historical continuity behind her self-fashioning, particularly through her personal jewel collection containing pieces worn by her predecessor, Marie Antoinette. Indeed Eugenia’s appreciation for both contemporary French fashion and the elaborate costumes of the eighteenth-century has been well-documented (Kessler-Aurisch et al 158-59), and an acclaimed Winterhalter portrait even depicts her in 18th-century dress, explicitly connecting the 19th-century empress’s image to that of Antoinette’s in terms of both feminine royal power and aristocratic fashion: Empress Eugénie in 18th-Century Costume (1854). By suggesting parallels in La mujer fantástica between the fictional, twentieth-century protagonist and a nineteenth-century Spanish-born French empress, both of whom look to previous models of womanhood (in art and history) to inspire their manner of self-presentation, Burgos imbues supposedly superficial or capricious modern feminine aesthetic practices with a renewed sense of creative, cultural, and artistic value that could boast a centuries-long history (17).

For common readers, then, visual familiarity with Winterhalter’s portraits would clearly afford a more precise and artistic vision of certain scenes or characters within the novel; yet contextual familiarity would have been imperative for the educated, cultured reader’s understanding of the representational pluralities created through fashion on the cultural and historical levels, and through ekphrasis on the narrative level. In La mujer fantástica, the early connection between Winterhalter and his artistic renditions of fashionably dressed, powerful women who controlled, to varying extents, their own representation in portraiture, is but one layer of additional meaning conveyed by Burgos’s first allusive ekphrasis. Of further import is the fact that many of the dresses worn by the wealthy aristocracy and royal empresses when sitting for Winterhalter portraits were created by Charles Frederick Worth (1825-95), an English designer who dominated the Parisian fashion scene during the Second Empire, especially due to the patronage of Empress Eugenia after their introduction in 1859 (Coleman 61) (18). Considered the father of haute couture, not only did Worth popularize luxurious dresses and exclusive garments coveted by the French aristocracy portrayed in Winterhalter's paintings, but his designs were in high demand by wealthy women throughout Europe, England, Russia, and the United States (especially after the fall of the Second Empire in 1870) (63). As such, Worth defined the parameters of modern fashion on an international level, both in the nineteenth-century and beyond, as his label continued to enjoy popularity throughout the twentieth-century, and especially during the fashionable 1920s when Burgos wrote La mujer fantástica. Taking into account the multifaceted historical and cultural markers informing the allusive ekphrasis that opens the novel, as well as the references to Empress Eugenia throughout, we can see how Burgos gives prominence the artistic value of fashion in an historical context. Not only does she foreground its centrality in Winterhalter’s paintings, but she traces a trajectory from the beautiful royal empresses immortalized in museums, to modern women who, amidst early 20th-century reverence for French fashion and the art of haute couture popularized by Worth, pursue fashion as a means of self-expression and identity formation.

While Coleman explains that both Winterhalter and Worth “were true artists: they simply chose to work in different media: Worth framed his clients in fabric; Winterhalter… in watercolors and oils” (64), Burgos places emphasis on the women as artistic subjects. The feminine agency hidden in such portraits has often been overlooked by scholars like Coleman who focus on the male artists as subjects and consider the women only as the art object. Straub, however has argued that within Winterhalter’s masterful portraits of women like Eugenia and Elisabeth, “the status of fashion as the sole means of self-expression available to women is clearly evident” (62). Curiously, in 1927 Burgos expressed this precise sentiment regarding fashion’s value as a form of feminine artistic expression in various historical eras in La mujer moderna y sus derechos:

Durante mucho tiempo no ha tenido la mujer más campo que la moda para emplear su fantasía, de aquí la pasión con que se ha entregado a crear y reproducir nuevas formas de trajes, peinados y accesorios. En la historia del traje está todo el arte de la mujer. Sus cuadros, sus esculturas, su literatura se tuvieron que condensar en sus creaciones de indumentaria. (262)


Despite the fact that fashionable women have been visible in varied historical, cultural, and artistic contexts, their agency has largely been ignored. Through the reclamation of nineteenth-century cultural production and practices like royal portraiture and haute couture – genres and an era that modernist and avant-garde circles typically decried or rejected (19) – Burgos pens a decidedly modern, avant-garde narrative that not only places fashion among the fine arts, but also emphasizes the agency of women as subjects.

Returning to the non-fictional parallels between a nineteenth-century French empress and a twentieth-century mujer moderna, Olivia Gruber Florek has recently argued that aristocratic portraiture, which has traditionally been cast aside as archaic and unrelated to modernism, is in fact the very point of departure from which multiple meanings and ambiguous modern identities may be conveyed (5). In her study of the visual culture of femininity within the Austrian courts (1850-1900), Florek refers to the aforementioned Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sisi) for the way in which her portraits, like those of other European royalty, captured the ambiguous position of the declining monarchies. As recognizable visual propaganda, these works of art and their mass-produced copies (20) transformed the Empresses and female aristocracy into celebrities “whose images circulated alongside those of actresses and dancers” (3). This blurring of the boundaries between the high and low class, and high and low culture, further solidifies the fashion-art nexus in La mujer fantástica, as the protagonist traverses numerous social settings in which make-up, attire, and fashion trends are perceived variably as markers of social status or cultural prestige, open to the admiration, critique, or scorn of spectators. As Elena seeks the admiration of her contemporaries, she quickly turns to the arts: “Se había apoderado de ella un deseo loco de ser artista” (73). When she expresses this desire to Leopoldo, her famous theater-actor husband, however, he responds disparagingly: “¡No basta ser hermosa para ser artista!” (73, 87). He repeats this statement twice; first before Elena’s theatrical debut, then later after the mediocre reviews of her rather ordinary performance.

From that day forward, Elena holds a grudge against her husband and, viewing Leopoldo with a newfound resentment, she begins to perceive hypocrisy in actors’ behaviors. She observes as they take on diverse roles and spend great amounts of time and energy on costumes, hair, and makeup: “El gran actor podía considerarse un escultor de sí mismo, según sabía componer y tallar su rostro y su actitud” (73-74). For Elena, these tools represent an admirable art form and a liberating process of self-creation, in both the context of the French Empire of the previous century and in select circles of her present society. She promptly realizes that actors and actresses behave each day in a similar manner as she, applying make-up, selecting the most appropriate, often elaborate garments from their wardrobes, accessorizing, and ultimately adopting a suitable – or not-so-suitable – role. Yet while they are praised and admired, earning money, fame, and status, Elena is denigrated as vain and superficial, not merely by men, but by other women as well. Marta, a stage actress who is also Elena’s husband’s ex-wife, slyly insults the protagonist for having spent hours one morning preparing herself: “Si a mí me costara tanto trabajo ser hermosa, preferiría meterme en un convento” (83-84). A furious Elena responds sarcastically by mocking Marta and her constant talk of her stage performances: “¡Necesito dedicarme a mi arte! ¡A mi arte! ¡A mi arte! – repetía Elena imitando la voz de Marta y su gesto de chicuelo alegre – ¡Valiente arte! El arte de enseñar las piernas... ¡y luego se cree seductora!” (84). In observing how fashion and make-up are common denominators in both her own reality as a bourgeois woman and the fictional portrayals of characters on a respected stage, Elena becomes acutely aware of femininity as a “performance” inconsistently judged – praised or admired as an art on stage or in museums, yet mocked or disparaged as a frivolous, wasteful hobby of bourgeois and (aspiring) upper- and middle-class women. Here, Elena’s recognition of the performative nature of modern feminine identities is consistent with Burgos’s account of the modern woman’s femininity in El arte de ser mujer and in her chapter on fashion in La mujer moderna. In these chapters, she praises fashion as, according to Ana María Díaz-Marcos, “un acto de representación, un proceso de ‘inventarse’ de otra forma” (“La ‘mujer moderna’” 117).

Despite the fact that Elena is unable to find success as a celebrated theater star, there is one “artistic” realm in which she excels – fashion, and particularly “las toilettes”. In this context of the early twentieth century, the word “toilette” could refer to a variety of traditionally feminine practices of self-care and grooming, including dressing and accessorizing, applying make-up, arranging the hair, and even selecting an ideal perfume combination (21). For Elena, her toilette is a crucial part of her identity that she refuses to forgo or reduce, and references to the word itself or its multiple components and practices appear countless times throughout the narrative. In different moments, amplifying and preserving her beauty is a process the narrator refers to with the following phrases: “la fatigosa ocupación; inmenso trabajo” (68); “los secretos de tocador” (165); “el triunfo de su arte” (185); “la tarea de su tocador” (202); and “obra suya” (223). Despite the potentially negative connotations we may assign today to words like fatigosa, inmenso trabajo, and tarea when referring to make-up or women’s grooming, the narrative is not structured such that it criticizes these processes, but rather celebrates the freedom they afford a woman to create herself – to become an artist – much like the celebrated actors and performers who take on new and temporary identities. Burgos viewed this practice as a manifestation of personal identity, yet she was aware of the fine balance and deft skills necessary to ensure the toilette was an individualized artistic practice as opposed to a wasteful or gauche imitation of others: “Interesa, pues, no perder la personalidad entre los caprichos de la toilette, ser una misma y no una copia vulgar; pero huyendo del ridículo, de la afectación y de la extravagancia” (El arte 146). Moreover, this labor invested in the act of self-(re)presentation provides another connection to the royal women of centuries past whom Elena so admired. McQueen, for example, argues that Empress Eugenia used her patronage and collection of the arts, including painting, sculpture, interior design elements, and self-commissioned private photographs and portraits, “to define her sense of self both privately and in public,” revealing a strong relationship “between individual agency, cultural policy and artistic production in the modern period” (4).

Just as the empresses of the nineteenth-century European empires exercised control over their ideal presentational images through fashion choices, beauty practices, and commissioned portraits that would memorialize their likeness in museums of fine art on a global scale, so too does Elena attempt to curate an “ideal image” to put forth to her world (22). The narrator explains that “[Elena] confiaba el triunfo de su arte a sus vestidos, a su presentación, a su hermosura” (184-85), and later observes: “Aquella belleza y aquella frescura eran obra suya, hijas del perseverante cuidado de toda su vida” (223). Here, the uses of the words “arte” and “obra suya” effectively equate the discourse of Elena’s feminine practice with that of the fine arts. This vocabulary is consistent with Burgos’s description of the toilette in El arte de ser mujer: “Así una mujer de verdadero espíritu de artista hace su figurín” (145, emphasis mine). Of further import is the fact that Elena works to refine her skills by taking lessons and rehearsing, much like a painter, a writer, or an actor. In one scene, she practices new techniques with the help of a small record player (gramófono) purchased from the Instituto de Belleza, which contains multiple discs that audibly guide her in the careful preparation of her external appearance (191-92). By the end of the novel, a middle-aged Elena wants nothing more than to “volver a ocupar su lugar de reina de la moda” (222). This curious use of a word evoking royalty recalls both the Empresses who graced Winterhalter’s portraits, and the young princesitas who had “escaped” said portraits to transpose their images onto the first few pages of Burgos’s novel. As such, the narrative is bookended with references to both art and royalty, further underscoring the connections between the modern, twentieth-century Elena and the artistic and historic character-actors of the Second French Empire, a nineteenth-century era when fashion came to be especially valued and respected as an art form in and of itself.  

In terms of Burgos’s evaluation of fashion, Díaz-Marcos has demonstrated that Colombine, unlike her predecessors and contemporaries, offers a revolutionary and celebratory vision of fashion based on its capacity for creativity, production, and self-expression (La edad 304-05) (23). In La mujer fantástica, Elena’s behavior clearly fits within this sensibility, and to some extent Burgos may have been inspired to arrive at this understanding of fashion based on her interpretation of the varied artistic illustrations of the empresses of the Second French Empire and mid- to late-nineteenth century Europe. But in this novel and in her essays, Burgos goes further in her praise, noting fashion’s connection not merely to the present, ephemeral moment, but to the histories, cultures, and women of the past. This is consistent with Highfill’s claim that avant-garde artists and writers viewed fashion as a way “to assume creative agency, to insert oneself into the ever-mobile present and to join with the creative forces of history” (248). We must recall that only two years prior to the publication of La mujer fantástica Burgos had affirmed that fashion – “el arte de la indumentaria” as she defined it – contains a hidden, mysterious element capable of exaggerating and embellishing even the most trivial and subdued aspects of individual and collective identities: “La moda… encierra un sentido profundo… Algo muy importante, muy recóndito, capaz de revelar por sí toda el alma de una época, todas las costumbres y todo el espíritu de un pueblo” (37). The frequent juxtaposition of fashion and the fine arts, as well as the inclusion of allusive ekphrases throughout La mujer fantástica, clearly demonstrate that Burgos rejects not only the negative association of fashion with frivolity and superficial commodity culture, but also the disdain directed towards women’s innovative self-fashioning. For Burgos, careful clothing selection and the dedicated practice of the toilette were not restrictive or wasteful, but rather liberating forms of artistic expression and identity-construction to which upper-class – and, increasingly, middle-class – women had claimed near-exclusive access and dominance throughout diverse historical and cultural eras.

Finally, in the context of the Avant-garde, Ruth Hemus has posited that many artistic practices and products preferred by Dada women, like doll-making, embroidery, and tapestry, “have been overlooked in part because they do not concur with more ‘high art,’ or customarily male, practices,” thus highlighting “questions about the relationship between gender and chosen modes of artistic expression” (12) (24). Fashion (as practice) and clothing (as an art object) easily fit within this reevaluation of avant-garde art and, as Susan Larson affirms:

Both women’s fashion and the avant-garde of the 1920s – highly aesthetic pleasures – questioned traditional views of what was beautiful, sought to deny the existence of any hierarchy of aesthetic values, and recognized pleasure and beauty as important forces in the lives of modern urban citizens. (227)


Without a doubt, the literature of the Spanish Avant-garde, especially in terms of narrative, has been valued according to aesthetic preferences and practices that were largely shaped and defined by male artists and intellectuals like Ramón Gómez de la Serna and José Ortega y Gasset. Exploring the work of female authors in the context of alternative avant-garde practices – especially the writing of a woman like Burgos, who was both intimately connected to male intellectual circles yet often relegated to their margins by male privileges, agendas, and thematic or aesthetic preferences – greatly enhances our understanding of Spanish modernism, the Spanish Avant-garde, and the lived experiences of women artists as they responded to the rapid changes of modernity and urbanization. In La mujer fantástica Carmen de Burgos creatively embeds her defense of la moda in narrative through allusive ekphrasis and a markedly avant-garde style that redeems the realist impulses of the nineteenth century by reconsidering their representational pluralities. In the process, she challenges the notion that avant-garde literature necessarily represents an abrupt break from or rejection of the past, validates fashion and make-up as non-traditional, feminine artistic mediums, and establishes a cultural and historical trajectory of women’s “artistic production” through fashion and self-representation. Her vindication of nineteenth-century realist courtly portraiture and the luxurious, ornamental feminine fashion of the Second French Empire further flies in the face of the seemingly universal disdain expressed by male artists for the culture of the previous century – a decidedly iconoclast, international, and transhistorical – that is, “avant-garde” – move if there ever was one. In the end, both the novel and its fashion-focused protagonist embody resistance not merely to those individuals suspicious or critical of female fashion, but to the hegemonic male definition of “art” and the high value placed on the abstract, dehumanized aesthetics that were increasingly dominating Burgos’s intellectual and artistic circles in early twentieth-century Madrid.  



(1) Maryellen Bieder is one of the few scholars to discuss La mujer fantástica, noting its subversion of the myth of the modern garçonne, or Parisian woman (254). Bieder interprets Burgos’s use of parody, satire, and non-Spanish settings as “conservative modes” that soften or counteract the potentially shocking effects of the novel’s daring subject matter (254-55). Carmen Morenilla Talens also makes comparative mention of the novel’s potentially moralizing intent in her study of Burgos’s La mujer fría (1922), but neither the protagonist nor the themes are analyzed in depth (150, 156). Michelle Sharp has also discussed “feminine roles” from this novel in her research on the family and gender roles within Burgos’s narrative oeuvre.


(2) In El arte de ser mujer Burgos states: “Arte y ciencia, no podemos desdeñar la indumentaria, como no podemos desdeñar la arquitectura o la música. Una forma de traje corresponde a un estado del espíritu de un pueblo lo mismo que su literatura o su estilo arquitectónico (38). She later connects fashion and dress to painting and museums: “La moda busca su inspiración en las bellas artes y especialmente en la pintura, con lo cual presenta relaciones y semejanzas. Un museo de pinturas es siempre un museo de historia del traje; paseando entre los cuadros nos dan a impresión de estar en un salón de otro siglo… Todos los pintores han rendido por regla general pleitesía al traje. Con amor trató el divino Leonardo las vestiduras de sus mujeres-efebos, Rafael cometió anacronismos poniéndoles a sus mujeres adornos y vestidos de época, de los cuales es hermosa muestra la Virgen de la Diadema Azul, en el Louvre… [E]l pintor copia nuestras modas, pero lo hace de un modo incidental” (51-52). Susan Kirkpatrick notes that the titles of Burgos’s advice manuals for women – El arte de saber vivir (1909); El arte de seducir (1916); Arte de la elegancia (1918); El arte de ser mujer (1920) – demonstrate her understanding of “el oficio de ser mujer como un arte en el sentido de constituir un conjunto de técnicas y habilidades” (183).


(3) Kirkpatrick affirms that Burgos maintained “una relación tangencial” with avant-garde activity and describes her participation with the following phrases: “no participó directamente… ocupó un lugar sólo marginal… se mant[uvo] apartada” (216-18). Similarly, Roberta Johnson explains that women’s vanguard fiction lacks the dehumanized aesthetics defined by Ortega y Gasset (Gender 224) and that female novelists instead practiced a singular form of “social modernism” (vii). Despite living and writing during the Spanish modernist period (1898-1939), Johnson notes that Burgos is rarely mentioned in studies of this time, as “literary modernism emphasized form and philosophy over social phenomena” (“Carmen de Burgos” 66).


(4) In 1925 Ortega y Gasset identified seven tendencies of new art in La deshumanización del arte. While it is true that women’s writing largely eschews these abstract tendencies (as Bieder, Johnson, and numerous literary critics have noted), La mujer fantástica does in fact five of Ortega y Gasset’s seven characteristics (especially 3-7). Ortega y Gasset describes this “nuevo estilo” as follows: “Tiende: 1) a la deshumanización del arte; 2) a evitar las formas vivas; 3) a hacer que la obra de arte no sea sino obra de arte; 4) a considerar el arte como juego, y nada más; 5) a una esencial ironía; 6) a eludir toda falsedad, y, por tanto, a una escrupulosa realización. En fin, 7) el arte, según los artistas jóvenes, es una cosa sin trascendencia alguna” (24).


(5) Derek Harris discusses the “hybrid nature” of the Spanish Avant-garde in the artistic and literary production of predominantly male artists, whereas María Soledad Fernández Utrera has demonstrated hybridity to be a forceful characteristic of both male and female vanguardists. Fernández Utrera suggests that women’s avant-garde activity strays from but does not entirely reject the terms set forth by Ortega y Gasset: “El discurso vanguardista femenino… marginaliza la creación de productos puros y favorece la de prácticas culturales híbridas (112-13). Robert Wells has recently pointed to problematic contradictions inherent in the dehumanized aesthetics promulgated by Ortega y Gasset and practiced by avant-garde poets like Pedro Salinas. Wells takes issue with the division Ortega y Gasset attempted to draw between life (la vida) and aesthetics (la poesía) (404-05), a critique especially relevant to scholars’ evaluations and classifications of women’s modernist and avant-garde literary and artistic production.


(6) I use the term “unlikeable” because the protagonist often behaves in despicable ways that are not defended by the narrator or other characters, nor redeemed by the end of the tale. She is narcissistic and short-tempered, often to the point of damaging her friendships, and she is an adulteress, unable to remain loyal to her husbands or male companions. Bieder goes as far as to describe her as a prostitute and “a defective woman” (255), but in my reading Elena is never shown to be a prostitute in the traditional sense of exchanging money for sex (her marriages and relationships with wealthy men may, however, be construed as a form of prostitution according to modern, feminist interpretations of male-female relationships built on economic inequality. In fact, Margarita Nelken dared to make this comparison in Spain in 1919: “…el matrimonio burgués se envilece desde un principio por culpa de la mujer que se vende legítimamente con no menos astucia, y a veces hasta con no mayor hipocresía, que cualquier ramera” (51).). The contradictory nature of Elena’s behavior and persona creates a wealth of ambiguities that merit further critical study in terms of Burgos’s conception of the real and fictional “modern woman” and her place within the real and imagined worlds of Spanish modernity.


(7) Cole’s analyses focus on avant-garde prose in José Ortega y Gasset’s fiction series, “Nova Novorum” (1926-1929), and he examines new aesthetic sensibilities and experimental narrative strategies through the lens of ekphrasis in the following works: Pedro Salinas’ Víspera del gozo (1926); Benjamín Jarnés’ El profesor inútil (1926) and Paula y Paulita (1929); and Antonio Espina’s Pájaro pinto (1927) and Luna de copas (1929). Like most studies of the Spanish literary avant-garde, Cole pays little attention to women artists, focusing instead on the contributions of Ortega y Gasset, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, and Giménez Caballero, in addition to the aforementioned authors.


(8) The difficulty in “understanding” (entender) avant-garde literature or arte nuevo (to use Ortega y Gasset’s language) has led to accusations of elitism against artists of this movement (Gregori and Herrero-Senés 7).


(9) Elena states: “Boeklin debió pintar aquí ese cuadre que hemos admirado en Basilea. Es el pintor del Rhin” (46). Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), a Swiss symbolist painter, is best known for his painting The Isle of the Dead. He painted five versions of this eerie, naturalist landscape between 1880 and 1886, one of which is known as the “Basel version” (1880), the likely visual associated with Elena’s reference. The mysterious, suggestive Isle of the Dead was admired by the surrealists and Freud, who admits to having dreamt about the macabre painting in The Interpretation of Dreams.

(10) In referring to a portrait of Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), a French clergyman and dignitary, it is probable that this reference would bring to mind one of the paintings by Philippe de Champaigne, completed in 1642, that depict an aged Richelieu in red religious robes.


(11) Isabey was a French painter of the courts who specialized in portraits and miniatures. The artworks mentioned in the novel feature “cabezas de mujeres peinadas con bucles, sobre los que había un adorno de tul, que descendía sobre los hombros y se mezclaba a las pieles” (200).


(12) Phryne (la Frine) was a Greek courtesan known for taking on lovers and exhibiting her nude body and breasts, though a variety of sources confuse a historical person with a fictitious personality (Havelock 43-45). She was the alleged human model for the famous ancient Greek statue of the divine Aphrodite, created by Athenian sculptor Praxiteles in the 4th century B.C. (see Havelock 42-50 for stories surrounding Phryne as Praxiteles’s model).


(13) See García de la Rasilla for a discussion of male and female surrealists’ portrayals of the fragmented, deformed, fetishized, and often mutilated female body. García de la Rasilla describes the mother-goddess in several iterations, for example: “…la famosa Venus de Milo, de brazos amputados, cuya belleza resulta hipnotizante precisamente por su figura inacabada, provocadora de interpretaciones ilimitadas” (184). See Larson for an interpretation of José Díaz-Fernández’s novel La Venus mecánica, that focuses on the transformation of the protagonist (“la venus mecánica”) from prostitute to fashion model to mistress. Highfill presents the “dethroning” of Venus (247) as a celebrated female model of beauty in the poetry of Pedro Salinas before exploring modern interpretations of this goddess, particularly those put forth by the novelist and journalist Andrés Garcia de la Barga (Corpus Barga) in his 1924 article “¿Cuál es la Venus de usted?”.


(14) Born in Granada (1826), the future French Empress’s full name was María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox, Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick; McQueen notes that today she is often misidentified as Eugenia de Montijo or as a princess (2).

(15) Only four days passed between the death of the Empress on July 11, 1920, and Burgos’s tribute to her, published in La Novela Corta on July 15.


(16) Burgos states: “El Segundo Imperio es de importancia capital… El traje de boda de la emperatriz Eugenia era de cola, de terciopelo blanco rizado, cuerpo alto con pedrería y falda cubierta de punto de Inglaterra” (El arte 119).


(17) Burgos addresses the purported superficiality of women’s fashion in her Introduction to El arte de ser mujer, ironically commenting on the assumption that fashion is a frivolous affair, unworthy of serious essayistic attention: “Este es un libro de estética atrevida, superflua, pueril, en el que me he decidido a abordar con toda audacia la difícil, complicada y tenue psicología de la moda… Este es un libro que yo hubiera querido llevar a la mayor perfección y elevar todos los temas frívolos hasta un punto diáfano, ideal, de una exquisitez celeste” (El arte 17-18). Díaz-Marcos interprets these initial words as a type of disclaimer, “[una] apología de la moda y el cuestionamiento de la categoría de lo ‘frívolo,’” which functions as a discursive strategy by which Burgos defines herself as a bold, modern artist whose daring aesthetic will equate “frivolity” with poetic exquisiteness (exquisitez poética) (“La ‘mujer moderna’” 114). Kirkpatrick similarly notes the introduction’s defense of the so-called feminine qualities of frivolity and irrationality, linking these traits to the production of new literary and aesthetic values (193). For Ugarte, Burgos’s statements in El arte de ser mujer are contradictory and paradoxical, as they are both a warning of the frivolous nature of writing on beauty and fashion and also an attempt to realize perfection by means of this same presumed frivolity (55-56). Ugarte describes Burgos’s writing here as embodying “a kind of frivolity that speaks from frivolity itself” (55-56). As for Burgos’s own continued engagement with contemporary attitudes towards fashion and “la psicología de la moda,” in 1927 she would continue to dispute Georg Simmell’s claim that fashion is arbitrary and capricious (La mujer moderna 259), though she would show some support for Gregorio Marañón’s interpretation of fashion’s three motives (utilitarian, economic, sexual) (260). 


(18) Napoleon III encouraged his wife’s patronage of dressmakers in order to support France’s textile and fashion industries (Coleman 58). Eugenia did her part to help revive France’s faltering textile trade, and “in Worth and her friends at court she had perfect silent partners” (62).


(19) Gregori and Herrero Senés explain that “open-minded and cosmopolitan” Spanish avant-garde writers “were declared enemies of the past and felt a particular loathing for the nineteenth-century heritage, romanticism and realism, and for their topical language, outdated and full of pomposity” (6). Similarly, Ortega y Gasset criticizes nineteenth century art, especially realist tendencies, for their simplistic focus on human rather than artistic elements (20-22).


(20) Winterhalter’s state portraits were “routinely copied as soon as they had left his easel for official distribution, and thousands of copies were disseminated in various media” (Kessler-Aurisch 14). When he completed his first three portraits of Empress Eugenia between 1853-54, Winterhalter’s fees “granted the state both the paintings and the rights of reproduction, which it exploited to the fullest, commissioning artists to make copies of the portraits in painting, print, and tapestry, both in large scale and in small” (McQueen 94). Copies of official photographs or portraits would circulate as cartes de visite (pocket-sized visiting cards) or as larger album-sized photographs (126). In the early twentieth century, Eugenia commissioned photographs of herself that were published in popular magazines, such as Femina in 1911. In these images, which differ significantly from early official portraits, she wears an array of elaborate dresses from the 18th and 19th centuries, in addition to costumes from a variety of Mediterranean cultures (126-31).


(21) Burgos details the toilette in chapters 12-13 of El arte de ser mujer, emphasizing the need to individualize both the process and the objects according to social class, complexion, and age (144-164).


(22) Regarding the “ideal image”, Straub compares 19th-century women’s desire to control their appearance in commissioned portraiture to today’s digital-age practice of selecting an ideal “selfie” in order to present oneself in the most flattering way: “Ladies in court society are also highly likely to have wanted to present such ideal images of themselves in Winterhalter’s portraits. And in the paintings they wanted to look as others were supposed to see them. So what Winterhalter evidently succeeded so well in realizing and what he captured in the form of portraits was a sort of ideal image” (50).


(23) Díaz-Marcos contrasts Burgos’s views with those of Rosario de Acuña and Emilia Pardo Bazán, affirming that Colombine’s positive evaluation of luxury and spending may be considered an early celebration of a society of consumption, rather than a warning as to the pitfalls of consumerism (La edad 305). She also notes Burgos’s critique of the masculine rejection of fashion and subsequent negative association of “la moda con lo femenino” (291-92).


(24) Persin highlights noncanonical art forms such as television, film, photography, and mass media culture, each of which may function as unique art objects that speak for themselves (18). It is certainly appropriate to add fashion to that list and, as La mujer fantástica and El arte de ser mujer demonstrate, Burgos considered fashion worthy of high artistic praise.



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