"Carlota's Lesson in 'Love Painting'": The Portrait of a Woman Artist in a Spanish Short Story

By Alegre, Beatriz Caamano | Romance Notes, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

"Carlota's Lesson in 'Love Painting'": The Portrait of a Woman Artist in a Spanish Short Story


Alegre, Beatriz Caamano, Romance Notes


THE 1920s and 1930s were times of change in Spain. Events, such as the proclamation of the Republic in 1931, the outburst of the Civil War (1936-1939), and the influence of the avant-gardes and the utopian movements, created a society in motion and offered women new possibilities. A few dared to take advantage of this situation and entered the political field or became artists. However, their names, unlike those of their male counterparts, have fallen into oblivion. While the works of Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Bunuel, or Salvador Dali are what can be considered "common knowledge," only a few art critics are familiar with those of Maruja Mallo, Rosario de Velasco, and Angeles Santos. This is particularly surprising since these women's presence in the avant-garde is well-documented, and even some of their paintings are exhibited at the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art in Madrid. There currently is an attempt to revive these artists' experiences, but there is still a long way ahead.

This enterprise should include not only the study of the artists per se, but also that of the representation of women artists in the media, literature and society in general. These representations reflect how Spanish female painters were seen at the time, and help us identify the prejudices and expectations that they had to face. Since there is evidence that there were a considerable number of women artists in Spain in the 20s and 30s, one should assume that they would have provided ample inspiration for writers to create female characters devoted to painting. This does not seem to have been the case, and it is extremely hard to find texts from that period that depict women artists. Behind this absence, there is a strong opposition to the idea of a female genius, which will likely bring along a questioning of the overpowering male genius. A similar idea is stated by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own (1929), in which she concludes that men's insistence on female inferiority aims at keeping up the belief in male superiority (34). Thus, Woolf says,

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size ... [and] that is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge (35-36).

The danger that female genius poses has undoubtedly limited the existence of narratives that portray women artists, but it has not completely prevented it, and, once found, these narratives provide invaluable information to the researcher. This is the case of "Carlota supo que tenia corazon" (1924), written by Enrique Dominguez-Rodino, (1) and published in Los Contemporaneos, one of the multiple short story collections that circulated in Spain at the beginning of the twentieth century. The text comprises no more than ten pages, but it offers a unique perspective on the subject of women artists. The story is simple. It centers around a cubist German painter named Carlota Orska. The fact that she is not a Spaniard can be attributed to the author's desire, whether conscious or unconscious, to render her less threatening to Spanish men, who are thus enabled to disavow the possibility that anyone like her ever existed in their country. In the text, Carlota, who lives an unconventional free-spirited life, falls in love with a Spanish diplomat, Rafael de Liria. They become lovers, but, after a year, his passion for her weakens and they break up. Initially, Carlota is devastated and withdraws from the world. Eventually, however, she comes back with a new way of painting and an exhibition of her works turns out to be a huge success.

Critics probably would question the text's literary value, and the modern reader might consider it "corny," but the portrayal of the main characters, their relationship, and the connection between sex and art established in the story, are extremely valuable because they reflect the contradictions and ambiguities in gender roles at the time. …

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