23 April 2014

Bullfighting may be part of Spanish
culture ... but I’m still not going

Hotels along the Costa del Sol promote bullfighting as a tourist attraction (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I have never been to a bullfight and I have no intention of ever going to one.

I have been both a vegetarian and a pacifist for over 40 years, but this is not my reason for finding the very thought of bullfighting distasteful and disgusting.

It just goes beyond my capacity for understanding to try to grasp why hundreds or even thousands of people could imagine it is enjoyable to spend an evening watching an animal being prodded, goaded and tortured by people for fun before it finally killed cruelly to applause. It is even worse to consider that bulls are breed especially for this single purpose.

Throughout this week, I have come across posters and flyers inviting tourists to go to the bullfight. It is on offer, along with other tourist attractions like dolphin viewing and pony rides on the beach, as if a bullfight is in the same category as going to a floorshow or spending an evening at an exhibition of Flamenco dancing.

Inside the bullring in Mijas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

And yet, the poet Federico García Lorca, who was from this part of Spain, once described bullfighting as an “authentic religious drama.” The gore and passion of the toreo have inspired the work of Spanish artists for centuries, from Goya to Picasso. Five years of Spanish at school in the 1960s also taught me that bullfighting, like flamenco dancing and singing, is an integral part of the Spanish way of life. But I had forgotten all this until I visited Picasso’s birthplace in Málaga a few days ago.

I was told yesterday that Málaga has the oldest bullring in Spain. Perhaps this explains why, from his childhood, Picasso was a lifelong fan of bullfighting, and he continued to watch bullfights later in life when he lived in exile in southern France.

Picasso painted many images of bullfights, matadors and picadors. Perhaps it is his understanding of the gore, the violence and the humiliation of the bullfight that comes through in one of his greatest works portraying the brutality and suffering of war.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso ... the violence of the bullring provides the language and images that respond to the horrors of war

Perhaps the violence of the bullring provided the language and images that allowed him to respond to the horrors of war in his Guernica, which makes him one of the great tragic artists of history.

In his Guernica, Picasso depicts people, animals and buildings suffering and destroyed by the violence of the Spanish Civil War.

The mural is dominated by two images: a wide-eyed bull standing over a grieving, anguished mother who cradles her dead child in her arms; and a horse, representing the Spanish people, with a gaping wound in his side and falling in agony after it has just been run through by a spear and gored by a bull.

The mortally wounded horse shapes two other images – a human skull and a bull goring the horse from underneath. The bull’s head is shaped by the horse’s front leg, while his nose is formed by the horse’s kneecap.

Under the horse is a dead, dismembered soldier, his severed hand still grasping a sword. Yet there is hope, for a flower is growing from this shattered sword. On the wall behind the bull, a dove is holding an olive branch as a symbol of the hope for peace.

Picasso could hardly have painted the bulls and the horse in Guernica without drawing on his experience and knowledge of the bullfight.

Picasso’s protest against the brutalities of the Spanish Civil War was commissioned by the Republican government in 1937 and was inspired by the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika-Lumo on 26 April 1937 by a German Nazi Condor Legion fighting on Franco’s side, only a few months after the murder of García Lorca.

It was the first air raid on a civilian population in Europe. The village was pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. The non-combattant people who lived there, including women and children, were cut down indiscriminately as they fled their burning homes. Guernica burned for three days, leaving 1,600 civilians killed or wounded in its smouldering remains.

The Fascist planners of the bombing campaign knew Guernica had no strategic value as a military target, but it was a cultural and religious center for Basque identity. The devastation was intended to terrorise the people and break the spirit of the Basque resistance to Fascism and the Nazi supporters of Franco. In London, The Times labelled it the arch-symbol of Fascist barbarity.

Picasso decided that Guernica should not return to Spain until democracy returned to Spain. It now hangs in the Museo Nacional Central de Art Reina Sofía in Madrid.

As he was painting Guernica, Picasso was also working on The Dream and Lie of Franco, a series of sketches that depict Franco as a monster that first devours his own horse and later does battle with an angry bull.

Posing as a matador in Mijas ... but I am not going to the bullfight (Photograph: Barbara Comerford, 2014)

During an afternoon in Mijas a few days ago, I took the opportunity to visit the bullring, which was built over 100 years ago at the beginning of the 20th century. I was able to walk through the tendidos or stalls, the corrales where the bulls are kept, the callejón where the matadors wait before the fight, the patio de caballos, where the horses are kept, and to climb to the presidencia, which includes the president’s box.

I even stuck my face through the tacky cut-out stand that allowed me to have my photograph taken as a matador, with capa and muleta in hand ... although the capa looks more like a mobile phone.

But I have no intention of ever going to a bullfight, and could never encourage other tourists to see this is an evening’s entertainment. It is not a sport. It is not as though the matador and the bull are battling like Chelsea and Ateltico Madrid last night to go into the next round ... there is never a draw, one must die, and that almost always, perhaps inevitably, means the bull, who has no choice about being in the ring.

No matter how much bullfighting has inspired one of the greatest anti-war works of art, I cannot regard it as a sport or part of Spanish culture. It remains violent, it is cruel and it is inhumane, and has no place in a civilised European society. It is already banned in Catalonia and on the Canary Islands. Hopefully, the other parts of Spain will follow suite, and soon.

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