In 1933, Federico García Lorca delivered a lecture entitled “Play and Theory of the Duende.” In it he speaks of the phenomenon of “duende”, a demon-like spirit represented as an irrational being with an intense correlation to raw passion, desperation and a heightened awareness of death and suffering. Lorca gives his audience a glimpse into the elusive nature of duende and exposes its presence in Spanish cultural folklore. However, his true purpose was to critique rationalism in the arts, specifically the performing arts. By pointing out the differences between those who are guided or ordered by angels or muses and those who possess duende, Lorca expresses his disdain towards intellectualism and traditionalism in the process of creative thinking. Lorca defends the exploration of the unconscious, the primitive, and the intuitive as the true sources of the very substance of art; by doing so, he challenges the traditional notions of artistic conception and interpretation. In his appeal for a more sensuous approach to the arts, Lorca gives little or no credit to rational methods like mastery of the necessary skills. While not opposing Lorca’s claim that the unconscious plays an important role in artistic expression, this paper will argue that hard work, knowledge of the craft, and a deep awareness of man and nature are also fundamental parts of the process of expressing creative power and originality. Artistic expression might find its inspiration in different sources, but discipline and training will always be intrinsic to the creative process.
Federico García Lorca, a member of the “Generación del 27” avant-garde movement of 1920’s Spain, like many of his contemporary colleagues, endeavored to produce a drastic change in art by creating a bridge between art and the masses. He, like Picasso, Dalí, and Miró, turned his back on traditional art techniques to give birth to a Spanish revolution in art that had its roots in his political views. For the avant-garde artist, “art absorbs the slang, notions and problems of modern life…it wants to destroy the hierarchy of art forms, to efface the dividing lines between ‘high’ and ‘low’ all in order to get closer to the public and overcome the alienating effect of the division of labor” (Szabolcsi 56). This notion is reflected in Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende,” with its exaltation of duende and Spanish folklore. Lorca not only elevates Spanish popular interpreters and performers to the heights of recognized artistic figures like Apollinaire and Becquer, but he implies that art must connect with the public to avoid becoming futile. “Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill” (Lorca 53). Lorca voices the reaction of an audience unimpressed with the superior technical abilities of a flamenco singer. In turn, the audience demands duende, which they can recognize and truly appreciate.
“Play and Theory of the Duende,” from beginning to end, is full of criticism and scorn towards traditional values found within contemporary Spanish cultural society. Lorca begins his lecture with great disdain towards his formative academic years as a student at the “Residencia de Estudiantes” in Madrid; he calls those years studying Philosophy and Letters boring. He continues his censure by giving voice to the gypsy dancer who liked Brailowski, but was bored by Glück, Brahms, and Milhaud. Lorca looks upon intellect and inspiration as limiting and restrictive forces and similarly assesses the muse and angel as sources of creativity. He instead defines duende as the true source of creative self-expression. Lorca’s duende “is a power, not a work…it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation” and nowhere is this power better exhibited than in the Spanish popular culture (49). Lorca, through his assessment of the idiosyncratic elements of Spanish folklore, makes his case for a more primitive approach towards the conception of art.
In his essay “Freedom in Art,” John Tuttle discusses contemporary movements that, like the avant-garde, promote the departure from traditional notions of art conception and appreciation:
A typical manifestation of the conception of free individual expression is primitivism. In revolting from academicism, tradition, and the arduous discipline imposed by the past, it is only natural that artists turn to the spontaneous art of the child, the work of simple, untaught artists of the present or of earlier periods…also that of primitive men, both prehistoric and contemporary. Here, it is felt, art shines forth more purely, without the encrustations of individual and racial training and without the damaging influence which the mind is considered to exert on the free, untrammeled expression of artistic impulses. (46, 47)
Tuttle considers this view of freedom in artistic expression as narrow. He admits that the unconscious plays a role in artistic imagination, but he contends that “the idea that there is a sacred inner self, always ready to yield up something significant or valuable for expression in art is a fiction, a piece of ungrounded mysticism” (Tuttle 47). He argues that a person “achieves a creative artistic power only through work, through training, through breadth and richness of experience” (Tuttle 49). Creative power, rather than the expression of an obscure inner self, is a force strengthened by the combination of the elements of training and practice. Originality then is the outcome of ability, experience, and deep understanding of the craft.
Flamenco and bullfighting are Spain’s unique forms of popular artistic expression. Lorca presents them as mystical expressions of art. His flamenco singers become vessels of magical powers that awe their audiences with passionate performances that are only achieved through their abandonment to duende. His bullfighters can only achieve artistic truth with duende’s help. While the Spanish culture has one of the most mystical souls of Western culture, the perpetuation of its cultural roots is a product of traditionalism rather than improvisation. The seemingly impromptu displays of fevered emotion are yet another traditional form of artistic expression. Pastora Pavón, the famous Andalusian singer endorsed by Lorca, whose remarkable performances won her international fame, is said to have possessed much duende. Nonetheless, Pavón also possessed an “extraordinarily flexible voice” and “technical perfection” that enabled her freedom to sing “not only well, but magnificently” (Volland 2). Sanchez Mejias, another of Lorca’s duende-infused bullfighters, gave performances that were described as irrational and impulsive. However, Timothy J. Mitchell, in his essay “Bullfighting: the Ritual Origin of Scholarly Myths,” describes Sanchez Mejias as far from reckless: “Sanchez Mejias was not a kamikaze. It was paradoxically his mastery of technical resources and ingenious tricks that enabled him to make such a convincing show of his careless courage” (407).
The Gypsies have practiced flamenco for centuries and it is their personal history that transfuses flamenco with pain and dramatic expression. Peter Manuel, in his study “Andalusian, Gypsy, and Class Identity in the Contemporary Flamenco Complex,” asserts that “the sense of Andalusian oppression has been a central theme in flamenco…” (48). The Gypsy awareness of his social and political identity is what makes flamenco unique in its form. As Peter Manuel writes: “Also valued in Flamenco are stylistic features…such as raspy vocal timbre, [and] sobbing-like falsetto breaks…The latter features have been interpreted as reflecting the sense of struggle and adversity so central to the Andalusian aesthetic and identity” (55). Flamenco performers, more than raw passion, possess a deep understanding of the Gypsy character and thousands of years of flamenco tradition. Lorca’s flamenco artists, beyond mystical power, own the confidence gained through training that allows them to express themselves freely. Even if the technique used is simple, their mastery of the form allows them to forget about the act itself, which gives way to the true emotion that they want to communicate.
Setting aside the notion of duende, Lorca’s mystical bullfighters exuded the confidence gained through achieving expertise. Lagartijo with his Roman duende, Joselito with his Jewish duende, Belmonte with his Baroque duende, and Cagancho with his Gypsy duende, were nonetheless true professionals of the craft. Mitchell observes that bullfighting “constitutes a traditional body of knowledge and practices” that “requires a highly sophisticated understanding of animal behavior, adherence to very specific norms and procedures, and a fair degree of nerve in carrying them out” (396). Even when the bullfighter puts on a performance that is more than pure technique, even before duende can make an appearance and take over the body, mastery of the craft is obligatory. Notions of geometry enable the bullfighter to measure the distance between him and the bull, understanding of the bull’s nature to calculate its movements. The bullfighter actions are both premeditated and rational: “even moments of panic and flight are prone to aesthetic elaboration” (Mitchell 404). Mitchell further emphasizes this point by asserting, “the fact remains that the craft itself has been shaped cerebrally, by the precedence of intelligence over strength, strategy over raw courage, brains over brawn” (407). Duende might represent the emotion that the bullfighter pours into his performance, but above all, great dexterity and command of technique determine the freedom of his performance.
Lorca brought popular culture to the attention of the intellectual community in an effort to reduce the gap between the Spanish social strata; in so doing he also revitalized the regional culture. “García Lorca was the most prominent modern poet to bridge the gap between rustic, often illiterate Gypsy singers and the literary intellectual world” (Manuel 53). “Play and Theory of the Duende” brings the musician Manuel Torre and the bullfighter Cagancho, performers who might never have reached star quality without Lorca’s endorsement, to center stage. Lorca also gives voice to an otherwise unknown Ignacio Espeleta, who was proud to be from Cádiz, building on the nationalistic pride of Lorca’s presentation. Lorca’s social dissatisfactions might have turned his artistic faculties to more ordinary issues like the impoverished Gypsies and might have influenced his dislike towards the conventions of the academy, but his observations are the result of intellectual analysis. His awareness of the disadvantages of the poor and his knowledge of politics are part of what allows Lorca to voice his criticism towards the exclusiveness of the artistic realm. His intellectual faculties are the tools that enable him to express his views. He draws from the vast well of academic resources to produce prose and verse that reflect the confidence of one who knows his craft. The force that drives Lorca’s passionate voice, then, is not
…merely subjective impulse, irrationality, an introverted and esoteric imagination, the repudiation of tradition and discipline, or a recourse to primitivism. It implies, on the contrary, a perception of the potential universality of the human spirit; a responsibility to artistic truth; a use of the whole mind—including intelligence, imagination, emotion, and more—in the service of artistic creation; an imaginative activity which is not turned primarily inward, but which looks out on the broad world of nature and humanity. (Tuttle 53)
Lorca puts the best of his abilities to the service of a greater truth: creating awareness about the importance of a national identity that represents all the layers of its social composition. Making use of his intellectual capabilities and his knowledge of Spain’s cultural folklore, Lorca presents to us an exquisite study of the mystical soul of Spain and some of its most influential artistic figures.
While Lorca is content to criticize the intellectualization of art in the academy, he nonetheless has given us his intellectual expression in his lecture “Play and Theory of the Duende.” Therefore, in an unconscious way, Lorca supports the very claim to intellectualization he seeks to refute. Lorca’s work represents its author’s intellectual breadth, exceptional rhetorical skills and deep awareness of Spanish cultural identity.
Barrio, Jose Felix. “The Generation of 1927.” Si, Spain. http://www.sispain.org/ english/language/1927.html
Garca Lorca, Federico. In Search of Duende. New York: New Directions, 1955. 48-62.
Manuel, Peter. “Andalusian, Gypsy, and Class Identity in the Contemporary Flamenco.” Ethnomusicology 33.1 (Winter 1989): 47-65.
Szabolcsi, Miklos. “Avant-Garde, Neo-Avant-Garde, Modernism: Questions and Suggestions.” New Literary Histor 3.1 (Autumn 1971): 49-70.
Tuttle, John. “Freedom in Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 2.8 (Autumn 1943): 45-53.
Volland, Anita. “A Tribute to Pastora Pavon ‘La Nina de los Peines’ (1890-1969).” www.de flamenco.com. http://www.deflamenco.com/ articulos/verArticuloi.jsp?co digo=FLA|821