Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

Madrid on the Move: Feeling Modern and Visually Aware in the Nineteenth Century by Vanesa Rodríguez-Galindo

Reviewed by M. Elizabeth Boone

Vanesa Rodríguez-Galindo,
Madrid on the Move: Feeling Modern and Visually Aware in the Nineteenth Century.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021.
312 pp.; 70 b&w illus.; notes; bibliography; index.
£85.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–1526144362

The title of the new book by Vanesa Rodríguez-Galindo, Madrid on the Move: Feeling Modern and Visually Aware in the Nineteenth Century, aptly points to a number of key issues for historians of art and visual culture in the late nineteenth century: mobility, modernity, and visuality. In this thoroughly researched and well-argued text, Rodríguez-Galindo uses her deep knowledge of the illustrated press to decenter our thinking about modernity and encourage us to look at the capital city of Madrid. In this regard, Madrid on the Move seeks to deepen recent attempts by scholars to understand the modern in parts of the world beyond Paris. Eschewing the use of adjectives that qualify modernity or expand it from the singular to multiple modernities, Rodríguez-Galindo “aims to strip the concept of modernity of the historiographic baggage that hinders productive thinking about cities that lie outside the canonical narrative of modernity, and, ultimately, aims to dislocate the concept altogether” (4). Spain is a particularly exciting place from which to promote this goal as the cultural intellectuals who sought to explain Spain’s loss of empire after the War of 1898 placed much of the blame on what they considered their country’s failure to modernize.

Rodríguez-Galindo signals her transnational approach to the subject of modern print culture in the introduction, which begins with the heated discussion engendered in Spain by the publication in 1871 by the New York journal Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of a view of Madrid’s main square, the Puerta del Sol. The editor of Madrid’s main illustrated journal, La Ilustración Española y Americana, criticized this image and its accompanying text for failing to convey the modernity of the city and casting the square and its inhabitants as out-dated and unsophisticated. She continues the introduction by providing the reader with a dense overview of the themes to be explored in the book: the unstable nature of the words and language used to define the modern; the power of images and their relationship to text; the prevalence in Spain of genre painting, or more precisely costumbrismo, which is usually defined as the painting of people’s customs; and “the slipperiness of the concept of modernity” (6). Rodríguez-Galindo is determined to reframe modernity not as a rupture, but as a negotiation, between the past and the present and between the local and the global. Tradition, she points out, does not have to be expunged to be modern. She is also eager to explore the ways that seeing, representing, and responding to the city were mutually constitutive processes. The evidence for these assertions is drawn from illustrated newspapers and satirical reviews published in Madrid between the 1860s and the mid-1890s.

Chapter 1, “Seeing the City,” considers how nineteenth-century madrileños (residents of Madrid) both saw the city and saw in the city. Arguing that how we can and cannot see is a question that produces self-reflexivity, Rodríguez-Galindo introduces several images—drawings and photographs—of blind men navigating the streets. She also provides an overview of the burgeoning illustrated press, new press laws that loosened restrictions on publishers in Spain, and the interplay of words and images as vehicles of visual communication. Her analysis of an advertising page from the newspaper La Iberia deftly demonstrates how British, French, Cuban, and Spanish businesses and products could jostle one another for the reader’s attention. Both words and images provide information to aid the imagination, and just as text and image interact with one another, so too do photographs and drawings. Several of the images she includes, such as an illustration depicting a woman viewing an installation mounted by La Ilustración Española y Americana at an 1885 exhibition (48), depict the subject in the act of seeing. The reader of the magazine sees the woman, and the woman is looking at the display cases mounted by the journal. The interactive nature of the image is further reinforced when the woman in the magazine looks back and acknowledges the reader’s gaze. Rodríguez-Galindo ends this chapter with a discussion of guidebooks and maps, using Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau to link lived space to movement through the streets, memory, and the preoccupation with vision in the modern city of Madrid.

While chapter 1 functions as an overview, chapter 2, “Making Modernity,” tackles the way foreign words and pastimes were brought into, altered by, and integrated into the life of Madrid. Here, Rodríguez-Galindo makes a strong case for the importance of thinking through modernity by studying cities outside Paris, London, and New York:

The visual culture of a so-called peripheral city like Madrid . . . brings to the fore the shortcomings of [an] account of modernity as break, while also exposing how historical awareness and consciousness of change worked. When notions like break and rupture are replaced by the less restrictive terms of dialogue and negotiation, we can see that references to the past or extant aesthetic conventions were an integral part of modernisation (79).

Words such as modernidad (modernity), modernización (modernization), and modernizer (to modernize) were not commonly used in nineteenth-century Spain, and Rodríguez-Galindo notes that the word modernizer was not accepted by the Real Academia Española until 1925. Interestingly enough, the word had first appeared some fifty years earlier in illustrated journals aimed at women, such as La Moda Elegante. Rodríguez-Galindo has also mined the comic press for cartoons making fun of new language expressions and their fluidity of meaning. A few of the images, such as figure 2.3, Manuel Luque’s Modismos del lenguaje,‍[1] are reproduced at such a small size that the reader can only appreciate their humor with a magnifying glass and (for those who don’t read Spanish) a dictionary, which might have been remedied by the author with a more explicit discussion of their contents. Others however, such as 2.4, George du Maurier’s A Choice of Idioms,‍[2] are larger and, because the joke is in English, used to make a similar point. This chapter ends with a discussion of images depicting one of Madrid’s newest fads—roller skating—and a regularly occurring event: the demolition of old buildings to make room for the new. The point, Rodríguez-Galindo makes clear in the final pages of this section, is that foreign words, modes of entertainment, and changes in city planning were not simply imported imitations embraced by the public in Spain. They were “mediated in conjunction with local concerns and pre-existing tropes” (111). The “implications of urbanisation for lived experience can only be coherently understood in conjunction with memory and affect” (115).

Chapter 3, “Strolling in the City: The Flâneur Interrupted,” shows how the Spanish social tradition of walking outdoors redefines the modern notion of the solitary observer à la Baudelaire. Rodríguez-Galindo once again demonstrates her love of words in a fascinating section on the various verbs, both native (for example, callejear, vaguear, pasear [roam the streets, wander about, stroll]) and borrowed (flanear), employed to describe the Spanish pastime of walking with a friend and seeing acquaintances on the street. Illustrations in the popular press depict both women and men meeting up to exchange news, engage in small talk, and create community. This chapter focuses on sociability in Madrid’s main square, the Puerta del Sol, which serves as the geographic center of Spain. From here, kilometer zero, the six national roads radiate outward to the provinces; these are the highways that allow people to move into and out of the capital. A map of the city would have been useful here (one does appear in chapter 1 and a second in chapter 4), and a discussion of a paseo (promenade) through the Puerta del Sol in comparison to strolling along the Prado might have deepened this discussion. Readers who wish to take up this challenge should begin with Eugenia Afinoguénova’s excellent book on Spanish culture and leisure, The Prado.‍[3] Her discussion of the paseo on the Prado, site of the city’s famous museum of the same name, is a likewise enriching introduction to Spanish tradition and modernity.

Rodríguez-Galindo turns in the next chapter from hybrid versions of the flâneur that “show the fluidity between perceptions of localness and foreignness” (156) to a consideration of nineteenth-century costumbrismo in the context of memory, nostalgia, and tradition. Costumbrismo is a difficult term to define in English; the Real Academia defines the word costumbre as a “manera habitual de actuar y compartarse,” or a “habitual manner to act and comport oneself.”‍[4] Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century costumbrista images usually depict single individuals on a blank page wearing regional clothing or holding the traditional tools of their trade, whereas late nineteenth-century images are more often multi-figured scenes of diverse people engaged in the activities of everyday life. Rodríguez-Galindo, who notes the humor and social commentary embedded in these images, does not see the continued popularity of this genre in Spain as old-fashioned or anti-modern. Concepts like nostalgia, she points out, may at first glance “seem to contradict that of modernisation, and indeed this paradox yielded some of the binary divides that have characterised the literature of modernity: tradition/newness, past/present.” But “recollection and nostalgia were inherent features of the modernising process, both in Spain and abroad” (186). Old “types” (costumbrista images never depict identifiable individuals) were updated and new ones were introduced. The water carrier, the seamstress, the waiter, and the tram passenger are among just a few of those discussed. She ends chapter 4, entitled “Sketching Social Types,” with a discussion of the tren botijo, the popular excursion train used by the jug-toting masses (the botijo is a water jug carried aboard the train to provide refreshment during the sweltering journey) who sought escape from the city during the hot summer holidays.

The fifth and final chapter of Madrid on the Move, “Creating Hybrid Surfaces,” further explores costumbrismo, caricature, and photography in the intertextual context of the illustrated journal, which brings image, caption, and text together into a mutually reinforcing dialogue. Rodríguez-Galindo returns in this chapter to the notion of self-reflectivity, pointing in a convincing manner to the way periodical images can “break the fourth wall” and open up the dialogue to the viewing reader. The question of whether costumbrismo is a conservative or modern mode of representing the city and its residents is likewise revisited, with the author forcefully rejecting either/or answers that close down rather than open up the meanings of modernity. And she concludes the chapter with a consideration of truth—and realism—noting how often both photographs and drawings were captioned del natural, or taken from life. As with the other binaries that are tackled in this text, “the interconnections between sketches and photography . . . suggest that rupture between the two media was not abrupt, whether in conceptual, temporal, or material terms” (244). “Feeling modern and visually aware,” the subtitle of this fascinating book, entails acknowledging the messiness of contemporary life.

Madrid on the Move is Rodríguez-Galindo’s first book, and she pleased this reader by including all her textual citations in Spanish and English. The frequent use of word play, double entendre, and colloquial phrasing in her primary source material made the presence of the Spanish originals and English translations edifying and entertaining. I rarely questioned her word choices. The absence of color images was missed only once, when the juxtaposition of colors on a mid-century map marking the layering of temporal changes to buildings on the Puerta del Sol was completely imperceptible in the black-and-white illustration (fig. 4.11). This book is theoretically informed—the author makes use of a broad range of interdisciplinary thinkers, including Walter Benjamin (of course!), Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Halbwachs, and Georg Simmel in addition to Lefebvre and Certeau, without being pedantic—and was a pleasure to read. I look forward to the next.


[1] Manuel Luque, “Modismos del lenguaje,” El Mundo Cómico, no. 77 (April 19, 1874): 4–5.

[2] George du Maurier, “A Choice of Idioms,” Punch’s Almanack for 1888 (December 8, 1887).

[3] Eugenia Afinoguénova, The Prado: Spanish Culture and Leisure, 1819–1939 (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2019).

[4] Real Academia Española: Diccionario de la lengua española, 23rd ed. [version 23.5 online], https://dle.rae.es. My translation.