Class and cultural consumption

There are countless forms of classicism, and as many ways to subvert them. A photo of Sandow wearing nothing but strappy sandals leaning on a column can bear different meanings to different groups of people. The use of a classical setting in a photo of someone posing nude served a similar purpose as the leaf

(not always from a fig tree) which frequently covered Sandow’s pubic region in photos, thus saving the blushes, and perhaps also the swooning gasps, of polite society.53 But, as Brauer has argued, in Sandow’s photographs the leaf functions less as a covering than it does as a phallic substitute; its shape and angle conjure that which it purports to conceal.’4 The idea that the classical paraphernalia (columns, elaborate sandals, leaves) actually serves to legitimate anything, is to fall for the same trick. The Roman sandal emphasises the model’s bodily nakedness, the column establishes a dreamscape outside of contemporary reality, beyond the realm of modern morality and customs. And the tin, or ‘post-production’ leaves are there to tease and titillate the viewer.

At a period when Oscar Wilde was convicted for ‘gross indecency with men’ and the aesthete and ‘invert’ was considered a serious threat to the British public, men admiring Sandow’s homoerotic nude could do so without fear of persecution. The illicit was flaunting itself in plain sight, but Sandow’s credibility, even though his own homosexual relationship with the Dutch musician Martinus Sieveking was an open secret,55 had attained such lofty heights that the eminently touchable gentleman Professor of Physical Culture, whatever his origin, had become untouchable, and he had set a precedent for others like Atlas and Vulcana to follow.

The classical is but one ingredient in this complex spell. In his magazines, for example, Sandow interspersed his ‘living statues’ (i.e. photos of his students from all over the world) with pictures of Greek and Roman statuary.’6 Brauer has persuasively argued that this had a ‘virilizing’ effect,57 but the juxtaposition of the present-day humans and statuary does more than virilise. It creates a context in which heroism and gentility are evoked in equal measure. Being granted access to those hallowed pages was felt to be edifying, and to justify those hours spent flexing in the mirror. It enabled men from across the British Empire, of different countries, ethnicities, class origins and economic brackets to be considered on a level playing field as muscular heroes, bare-chested and stripped down to their universal, timeless selves. The factory worker, the doctor, the miner, the London cabby, the military officer posted abroad—each was raised to the classical ideal, simply by having a photo taken while tensing and posting it to Sandow.

Sandow’s body culture was then able to circulate as a multifarious sign straddling the nexus between the aspirational and the erogenous, the edifying and the homoerotic, the permissive and the perverse and, more specifically, between homophilic exhibitionism and homoerotic voyeurism.’8

Its provision of a means by which ‘healthily’ masculine and heteronormative attention could be paid by men to other men’s near-naked bodies also facilitated a burgeoning trade in homoerotic images, and to a degree helped to depathologise homosocial and homosexual encounters within an openly homophobic society.59

It is unlikely that this was Sandow’s overarching goal.6" The eroticism of physical culture was Sandow’s stock-in-trade and imitated by countless enthusiasts of both sexes. He seems to have been genuinely committed to the idea of people being able to transform themselves not only physically but socially too. The economic rise of Britain throughout the Victorian period, accompanied by working-class agitation and demands for the vote and employment reform, also lay behind the new technologies and industries which were transforming the world at the time of Sandow’s eminence. The surplus wealth extracted both from the empire and from home-exploited labour lay behind the increased leisure which created the demand for more and cheaper entertainment, including affordable books, cinema, and for the private cultivation of the body and the self which Sandow incarnates.

But this greater wealth was built on the suffering of the working poor. As Sandow himself reminds us, children brought up at the time in poverty were largely malnourished and under-exercised, and therefore rarely fulfilled their physical potential. The children of the rich, as Sandow remarks in Life is Movement (1919), had ponies or their bicycles to ride, their tennis-courts, and everything conducive to healthy physical growth’. By 1919 he believed that ‘real social reform’, through ‘the socialization of health’ and not wealth, was already in the wings:

It was with the utmost pleasure that I read Lord Leverhulme’s statement that in the North of England at least “though the children of comparatively well-to-do parents had advantages in health over middle-class children, children of poor parents living in suburban areas were now healthier than either”. Such a pronouncement in any local district augurs what is possible if we take national and scientific measures to save the children of the nation.61

Sandow’s message was that in the realm of physical fitness and strength, irrespective of their socio-economic position, people could succeed by their efforts alone. He exemplified the meritocratic principle that anyone could achieve national respect and social distinction.

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