Madrid’s museum displays intimate photos of a couple from the 1920s

It was merely a coincidence that artist-curator David Trullo was working on a temporary installation at the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid on the day in 2017 that a sealed coffin, unopened for 80 years, arrived from the Ministry of Finance. With no means of locating the original owner or their family, it found itself in a bureaucratic and financial no man’s land until enough time had passed before its opening was legally permitted.

The contents of this unintended and surprising time capsule are now the subject of an exhibition, Álbum de Salón y Alcoba (The Bedroom and Dressing Room Album), installed by Trullo at the museum as part of Photoespaña, the city’s annual celebration of photography.

The suitcase contained household items, clothing, scarves, toiletries and a collection of photographs of a couple married on July 29, 1922. Little is known about the couple, and for legal reasons even their identities, as Trullo knows, must remain secret. . Despite his efforts, he has been unable to find any information about them or their family after the mid-1930s.

“We researched for a year to find them, and they disappeared in 1935. So something probably happened during the Spanish Civil War. They left Spain; something terrible happens to them. We do not know. My theory, which is just a theory, is that something happened in 1936 and they packed everything up. Not the very valuable things; they’re more sentimental things. They packed it up and put it somewhere with the idea of ​​coming back and picking it up, probably at a bank.”

In any case, Trullo knows that they were doing well and that the man was a lawyer. “Photos of them before they got married,” he says, “were taken by Kaulak, the best portrait photographer of the time. Everyone wanted a portrait of Kaulak.”

But hidden among the family albums, First Communion photos and portraits of parents and grandparents was a cache of photographs of a very different nature. Intrigued by Kaulak’s curiously misshapen framed wedding portrait, Trullo found hidden behind the print a collection of intimate and often graphically explicit photographs of the couple, apparently taken by themselves, dressed up, striking erotic poses and having plenty of sex. Before being cached, the prints were carefully wrapped in glassine paper.

Trullo remembers the discovery: “It was a very intense moment, because at first we thought it was just a collection of erotic postcards, but then we found out that it was them, and that we had an extraordinary archive with both sides, their public portraits and the intimate portraits.”

While examining the find, Trullo thought he had found photos of the woman posing with a third party, a transvestite, before slowly realizing that it was in fact the husband. “He pretends to be a transvestite with his wife, and they play together.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, all gender roles begin to crumble.

David Trullo

‘They are the ones who make their own collection of… we would call it porn photography now, but at the time they called it photo galante, which I much prefer,” says Trullo. “There were a lot of sessions, so it wasn’t just one – they were really looking forward to it.”

The contrast between the couple’s posed portraits and their private photos, and the lengths they went to conceal their activities, could imply that their interests were illegal or at least unconventional, but Trullo prefers to emphasize how widespread their tastes are – on the field of sex, transvestism and amateur photography.

“You might think it was something unusual, but at the time the market for porn photography was as big as it is today,” he explains. The Madrid of the 1920s and 1930s was “as modern as Paris, Berlin or London” and erotica was readily available in countless magazines sold on the street. The similarities between the couple’s photos and the risqué photos of the day suggest an enthusiastic celebrity. “I’m sure they’ve seen these magazines, and you can see the connections – the poses, the attitudes.

“The proliferation of images of music hall or vaudeville stars in more or less explicit poses was everywhere: postcards, chocolates, cigarettes. And the postcards are the Instagram of that time. Many publications such as Muchas Gracias featured underdressed women who in many cases were the same stars, or impersonators. That had a huge influence on portrait art at the time, and the photos we found clearly show that influence.”

The men don’t want to be gentlemen anymore.

David Trullo

Similarly, at a time when traditional gender roles were increasingly being questioned, cross-dressing was acceptable in certain environments, not least in the hugely popular music hall scene, where the fame of a ‘transformista’ (female impersonator) was sometimes that of his subject could overshadow. .

“In the context of that time, the 1920s and 1930s are when all gender roles begin to crumble. The girls want to be independent and modern, they cut their hair, they completely change their clothes. And the men don’t want to be gentlemen anymore. They want to be as modern as the girls.”

Equally important, the technology existed to easily allow amateur practitioners to bypass professional photographers and the services of processing laboratories. In 1930 you could buy a camera for eight dollars. “So if we think that everyone can have a smartphone now, many people could have a camera like that.”

“You don’t need a professional photographer to have a portrait taken. You can have a camera that is convenient and affordable, and you can take your own photos. You pose, you dress, but the photos are taken at home. You could set up a camera and a timer and go.”

Of course, no amount of privacy could guarantee the discretion of those who would process the film and print the photos, but Trullo believes the couple has found a solution.

“I think he had a darkroom because with all documents, things come up for photography material. So we’re pretty sure he did everything himself. And many of the prints had different finishes: overexposed, underexposed, and a lab doesn’t give you that. So he learned the technique.”

Trullo’s fascination with the couple’s behavior around what he describes as “a very personal kind of sex play between them” is historical rather than prurient. Many of the photographs on display, especially the more graphic examples, are partially obscured by the glassine paper in which they were originally wrapped. They are displayed alongside objects reminiscent of that era: a suitably furnished bedroom forms the backdrop; the new cheap cameras being marketed to the burgeoning amateur market are shown, as well as advertisements for erotic photographs from the 1930s and photos of music hall stars of the time.

That said, he also has a cautious eye on the future. “What will our grandchildren keep, destroy or show?” he wonders. “Because – think about it – we all have a history and a background.”

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