The Dangerous Summer: Bullfighting as an artistic discipline

Ernest Hemingway described bullfighting as “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to a fighter’s honor.”  He claimed to have attended at least 1,500 bullfights and immortalized the tradition in two works: the novel Death in the Afternoon, and the book The Dangerous Summer, an account of the rivalry between the legendary bullfighters Luís Miguel Dominguín and Antonio Ordóñez written while the author was in Spain on a Life Magazine assignment during the summer of 1959.  Hemingway was not the only modern cultural giant to glorify the confrontation between man and bull; Pablo Picasso is as well known for his many bullfighting images as he is for his graceful sketch of dove carrying an olive branch. Picasso was godfather to Dominguín’s daughter Paola and the bullfighter and his family were frequent guests at Picasso’s house in France during a period when bullfighting was highly identified with the dictatorial regime of  Francisco Franco and Picasso was considered an enemy of the Spanish state.

However much Picasso and Hemingway are responsible for disseminating a stereotypical image of Spain across the world, the relationship between Mediterranean artists and the bull has ancient roots. Cave paintings discovered at sites extending from Turkey to the Iberian Peninsula and mosaics and pottery found at archeological sites in Greece attest to the mystic, almost religious, relationship of men and bulls since the earliest of times. Nor were Picasso and Hemingway the first artists in modern times to  fall head over heels for the world of the bullring; the concert violinist Pablo Sarasate, probably Pamplona’s most famous son, was also a passionate fan of the corridas. Whenever his frenzied concert schedule permitted, he returned to his hometown for the San Fermin Festival, during which he often performed as a featured concert artist when he wasn’t glued to his seat in box 24 of Pamplona’s municipal bullring.

Basque painter Ignacio Zuluaga frequently said, “If I hadn’t been a good painter, I would have ended up being a bad bullfighter.” In fact, Zuluaga trained as a bullfighter and even killed a few bulls in Seville in the spring of 1897 under the pseudonym “The Painter.” At the same time that he developed what would be an enduring friendship with  Rainer Maria Rilke, he maintained close ties with the greatest bullfighters of his day, Juan Belmonte, Rafael Albaicín, and Manolete. A far-sighted philanthropist, Zuluaga purchased and restored the dilapidated house in the village of Fuenetodos where Goya, another painter famous for his portrayals of bullfights, was born.

The bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías was also a successful playwright who penned theatrical works that ranged from the surrealist Sinrazón to Las Calles de Cádiz, a musical created for his second wife, the dancer Encarnación López, and who moved in the same circles as Lorca, Falla, Alberti, and Bergamín. It was Sánchez Mejías who organized the legendary gathering of intellectuals in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the death of the poet Góngora in 1927 that would give rise to the literary expression “the generation of 1927.” Although he was one of the most successful and adulated bullfighters of his era,  he occasionally tired of the bullring. During his absences from the bullfighting circuit, he poured his endless energy into a wide range of other interests, which ranged from literature to polo. Sánchez Mejías also dedicated time to civic pursuits, serving as president of the Spanish Red Cross and promoting an airport in his hometown of Seville. He even found time to give a lecture on bullfighting at Columbia University in New York. His death in the bullring of Manzanares on August 11, 1934, prompted his distraught friend Lorca to write el Llanto.

The same year, the poet Miguel Hernández wrote a three-act drama  El torero más valiente  (The Bravest Bullfighter). Like many starving artists before him, Hernández found work editing entries for the never-ending encyclopedia of bullfighting undertaken by José Ortega y Gasset. Although the poet’s interest in El torero más valiente was undoubtedly sincere, it is very likely that he chose both the medium and the subject for their mass appeal. The earnings generated by sales of his poetry books were insufficient to support his family, and he hoped to put his finances on a better footing. Like Machado before him, he found the encyclopedia somewhat boring and wanted to move on to other projects. In the end, Ortega y Gasset himself sought a more comfortable distance from the subject to which he had devoted so much professional time and effort, stating in Obras completas, volume 9, chapter VII (ed. Alianza), “There is a widely extended legend that I’m a great fan of bullfighting, which not completely accurate . . . but if I have not been a habitué of the bullring, I have carried out what I saw as my duty as a Spanish intellectual to undertake a pending task; I have given it [bullfighting] consideration, something that no one else had done before . . .”

Other artists and intellectuals were more explicit in their disdain for the tradition.  Santiago Ramon y Cajal declared, “I take pride in the fact that I’ve never been among the elite public that attends bullfights,” and the painter Santiago Rusiñol mused: “Given a choice between rooting for the torero and his horse, I’ll root for the horse; between the torero and the bull, I’ll root for the bull. If the bullfighter kills the bull, they give him an ovation; if the bull kills the bullfighter, instead of respecting his right to live, they set him up against another bullfighter. There’s no sense of fair play in this contest.” Jacinto Benavente lamented that “Bullfighting is an ancient vice that we carry in our blood.”

Bullfighters once wore the normal attire that corresponded to their station in life, but over the centuries an elaborate sartorial code has been established. I’ve been told that nuns traditionally embroidered the elaborate trajes de luces (literally suits of lights) that toreadors wear in the ring, and bullfighters have been known to donate their richly adorned clothing to religious brotherhoods that subsequently use it to dress religious statues of the Virgin Mary. Today designing and producing bullfighters’ attire constitutes a niche market within the fashion world. According to the website, a typical suit worn by a bullfighter in the ring weighs between 4 and 5 kilograms, requires 30 days to create, and costs around 3,000€. The site also explains that the average creation is usually worn no more than four times by its owner.  Top designers have now entered the market. Armani created an outfit for bullfighter Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez for a homage to Goya held in Ronda in 2008. The surprise appearance of Antonio Olmos in the ring, dressed in street clothes and brandishing an especially prepared cape declaring his support of the  Spanish Constitution (documented in the above photograph) shortly after the attempted military coup d’état in 1981, was a rare departure from rigid ceremonial convention.

While I never have, and probably never will, set foot in a bullring, I have watched the live videos of the running of the bulls in Pamplona that appear on the front page of  the digital version of el País during the week-long San Fermin festival in Pamplona, and have stood awestruck in front of the television at the sight of otherwise normal young men (and an occasional young woman) somersaulting over the back of a charging bull or heifer to the delight of thousands of onlookers during the “vaquillas” that are an integral part of many regional festivals.

I have to admit that a chill runs up my spine every time I see this strange spectacle, not provoked by the danger these youngsters expose themselves to, but rather by the connection of their gestures to an unbroken tradition that has been maintained over thousands of years.  The dance between the these “recortadores,” as they are called, and any given animal is short—a matter of minutes—after which a specially trained bull called a “manso” is released into the ring. Once the bull or heifer in play sees the manso, it turns away from the crowd and docilely follows him into the bullpens. The fact that heifers, smaller and more agile than a fully grown bull, are often used for these events does not diminish one’s astonishment at the prowess of the recortadores. They confront the animals with only their wits and their athletic ability, whereas the heifers bring their superior weight and a fine set of horns to the contest.

Attendance at Spain’s bullrings has been slowly dropping for some time. Glamorous celebrity fans like Ava Gardner and Hemingway, who once lent  the functions a sophisticated, international air, have not been replaced by a younger, more politically correct generations of superstars and intellectuals.  None of today’s top fashion models would throw over lucrative careers to train as a bullfighter, as the remarkable Bette Ford did when she met Dominguín in South America in 1953. The social fluidity between the worlds of high culture and the world of bullfighting slowly withered during the 1970s and 1980s, either due a gradual evolution of the aesthetics of the cultural elite or provoked by the strong identification of bullfighting with Franco’s repressive regime and the picturesque but backward image that it projected overseas. Perhaps the most recent notable works by Spanish artists incorporating bullfighting as a major element have been films such as Luis García Berlanga’s wonderful tongue-in-cheek situational comedy set in the Spanish Civil War La Vaquilla (The Heifer), produced in 1985, and Pedro Almodovar’s  Matador and Hable con Ella (Talk to Her), released in 1986 and 2002 respectively. Although it has remained popular in rural areas and a few major cities, bullfighting has lost its attraction as a form of mass entertainment in Spain and has progressively become the pastime of a reduced number of hardcore fans.

In a 2006  Bloomberg News article about a film based on the life of Manolete starring Adrien Brody and a still relatively unknown Penelope Cruz, journalist Alex Duff quoted a 2004 Gallup poll that reported that only 31% of Spaniards claimed to be interested in bullfights, compared to 50% who stated that they followed soccer. More notable, the same poll indicated that only 17% of Spaniards age 24 or under had an interest in bullfighting. Bullfighting was banned in the Canary Islands in 1991 and 2011 is supposedly the last year that the Plaza de Toros Monumental in Barcelona, Catalonia’s last functioning bullring, will be allowed to operate. Another historic bullring in Barcelona, Las Arenas, has recently been converted into a domed entertainment center after a long period of abandonment and neglect.

Although today’s bullfighters and their ex– wives and girlfriends are staples on the celebrity talk show and magazine circuit, bullfighting itself has become a provincial form of entertainment, much like rodeos in the Western United States. Although the sharp erosion of young people’s interest in bullfighting as a spectator sport noted in the 2004 Gallup survey has most likely continued, their fascination for vaquillas (any participatory event involving heifers) has definitely increased, in line with the current boom in extreme sports.

I was therefore surprised to read in el País this week that the Spanish government has decided to shift responsibility for all issues related to bullfighting from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Culture, which will “promote it as an artistic discipline and  a cultural good”  and assume responsibility for any statistics, studies, (and one supposes regulation), of what otherwise might have been categorized as a sport. Professional promoters of bullfighting are very pleased by the decision, which may pave the way to a substantial reduction in the percentage of value-added tax assigned to tickets for bullfighting-related events and open the door to increased state funding for the sector. While cultural status may protect the bullfighting community from the pressures increasingly brought to bear by animal rights activists and fill its coffers, it may not do anything to resolve its other problems: a reputation for fraud, a style of breeding that has created a larger, more ponderous bull, and its decreasing attractiveness in the eyes of the general public.

Documentation of government funding of projects related to bullfighting provided by anti-bullfighting groups reveals that enormous subsidies are already granted to the sector for activities as diverse as breeding, the restoration, renovation, and construction of bullrings; festivals, and national radio and television coverage.  Radio Television España (RTVE) has officially stated that it spent almost 30 million euros on media coverage related to bulls and bullfighting during the period 2000–2006. The site I consulted for this article sets the current annual cost of direct state subsidies for bullfighting activities at approximately 47.00€ per family. How much more would be reasonable? If one compares the results of the 2004 Gallup poll with a recent government report on cultural spending, it would appear that the percentages of Spaniards interested in attending bullfights and museums both stand at roughly 30% (assuming that public interest in bullfighting has not slacked during the period 2005–2010).  Cultural institutions already dealing with reduced funding in the face of the current financial crisis will now be forced to compete with the bullfighting sector for a share of a shrinking pie. Under the new order, will the luxurious trajes de luces worn by bullfighters in what are now officially considered theatrical events qualify for government funding on an equal par with the costumes worn by opera singers in productions mounted by the Teatro Real in Madrid and the Liceo in Barcelona?

I suspect that the decision to place bullfighting under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture will lead to a greater number of art exhibitions, theatrical productions, and scholarly studies centered on the “mundo taurino” in the future. If this is the case, the troupe Lescomic is one (satirical) step ahead of the crowd with their current production Olé, a playful spoof for the world of bullfighting, which is now delighting audiences throughout Latin America.