‘Take refuge in the frivolity of street life’ [Sálvate en la frivolidad de la vida callejera], Ramón Gómez de la Serna states at one point in his autobiography. 1 By the 1920s Madrid was fast becoming a socially magnetic capital of modernity, increasingly secular and cosmopolitan. Castizo festivity, however, epitomised by the fiesta of San Isidro, or the verbenas of San Antonio, San Juan, San Pedro, and La Paloma, remained a significant aspect of social and cultural self-identity in the expanding and modernising city. Importantly incorporated into the everyday life of urban modernity rather than regarded as a nostalgic tradition that was opposed it, the verbena became a hybrid space in which the persistence of castizo identity alongside cosmopolitan modernity was overtly articulated. Advertising posters from the period, for example, present the verbena as a social and public space of modern vitality and change in which traditionally regional and folkloric images coincide with signs of modernity, notably in mechanical fairground rides, urban buildings and modish young women. Writers and artists, moreover, embraced the public festivity of carnival and comedy as an instinctive and vital force in response to what many modernist intellectuals regarded as the mechanicalism of the educated bourgeoisie. If the fiestas and verbenas were a common feature in nineteenth-century representations of Madrid, amongst the avant-garde of the early twentieth century they stimulated an aesthetic of the farcical carnivalesque or the ludic vernacular that was almost ubiquitous.
In 1928, José Ortega y Gasset organised an exhibition of paintings by a young Galician painter, Maruja Mallo, in the offices of the Revista de Occidente. The works were arranged into two groups; kaleidoscopic, carnivalesque scenes under the heading of ‘Verbenas’, and surreal images of mannequins and other objects described as ‘Estampas Populares’. Opening to great critical acclaim, Gómez de la Serna described the paintings as ‘a step forward, a new departure, a signpost’ for a new generation in Spanish art, and Mallo herself as ‘Queen of the Verbena’. 2 Dramatically juxtaposing the folkloric, Madrilenian fiesta with the technological, cosmopolitan influence of cinema, however, the exhibition again displayed a city