The Scarborough Hercules and the Venus of the Pavilion
Despite his best efforts, (Figure 18.8) Thomas Inch (1881-1963) was no classical sculpture. Posing as a Roman gladiator in this postcard is as close as he got to ‘living statues’. Far bigger and stronger than Sandow, Inch steadily took over his public role as the face of physical culture, launching a hugely popular mail order muscle course in 1903. His image of fitness was considerably less homoerotic, less confusing in visual message and focused on promoting health for the working man. The passing on of the baton was free from neither scandal nor mythologising, however:
Attending one of the German’s [Sandow’s] famous shows, Inch sat in the audience and watched Sandow perform one of his trademark acts: ripping a pack of cards in half and throwing the split deck into the audience. Inch caught one half of the pack, proceeded to nonchalantly split that in half,
FIGURE 18.8 ‘Thomas Inch posed as a Roman gladiator’, postcard (unknown origin), reproduced by courtesy of Ellis McKenzie—sandowplus.co.uk.
and, much to the annoyance of Sandow, triumphantly threw it back onto the stage.62
Inch’s book Scientific Weightlifting (1905) sold over 40,000 copies and was the first of several on how to achieve and maintain strength and other forms of physical and mental health. His scientific approach to bodybuilding also featured classical imagery. On the cover of Inch on Fitness (1923) stands coiled the Discobolus after Myron (Figure 18.9). The book is full of classically infused line drawings by R.C. Clarke. Early on, Inch also reveals that he has a Latin motto:
With multum in patvo as my motto I have endeavoured to arrange physical culture in tabloid form, as it were, so that the busy man may keep himself fit by expending ten minutes daily on physical culture methods.
Can you spare ten minutes?
Is this too big a price to pay for attainment of, at any rate, a percentage of the glorious strength and staminal power enjoyed, as a rule, by the athlete in training?63
FIGURE 18.9 Front cover of Inch on Fitness (1923), reproduced by courtesy of the British Library. The statue appears to be the Discóbolo di Mirone (Vatican Museum) or a replica.
Inch caters specifically for the labouring man: ‘“A change is as good as a rest”; and even the manual labourer will find that physical culture is quite a hobby and restful—it will assist him in his work and in his play’.64 He is conscious of the working man’s limits on time, energy after work and space in the home, advocating short spells of exercise that you can do in any room in the house. He also recommended taking exercise in the fresh air, sensitive to the ‘vitiated atmosphere’ in which much labour was conducted, surely thinking of his readers who worked down the mines or in countless other industrial factories and workshops where the air was frequently dangerous to breathe.65
The approach of our final physical performer, Olga Desmond (1890-1964), the Polish-German beauty who astonished Russian audiences in 1908 by performing stark naked, (Figure 18.10) was very different. Her controversial performance was even discussed in 1909 in the Prussian State Parliament.66 As Dickinson has shown, Desmond exploited her glamour and notoriety to the full, opening or attempting to open various dance, beauty and physical culture institutions, and bringing to market beauty and hygiene products, including a breast-enhancement
FIGURE 18.10 Olga Desmond as living statue, c. 1908 when Desmond appeared in St. Petersburg (Russian postcard, source unknown, public domain).
cream and an anti-freckle formula.67 Like La Milo, she performed in the London Pavilion in 1906, which is where she captured the attention of the British public.61* For nine months she appeared as ‘Venus’ in a group of living statues called the Seldoms. After abandoning clothes altogether, Desmond countered accusations that she was enslaving the public by their own erotic urges by explaining that her high ticket prices excluded the men and women of the street, who might not have sufficient critical or artistic faculties to appreciate her act as ‘high art’.69 She came from an enormous and apparently chaotic family, with 13 brothers and sisters. Their strict mother was not averse to calling the police on her wayward daughter.70 During and shortly after World War I she starred in several films, but after World War II, she worked as a cleaner in East Berlin.71
The classical was not the only idiom of performance at this time. The ‘Oriental’ was a fashionable aesthetic throughout Europe, prevalent among performers who wanted to dance seductively without clothes. It provided a legitimate means by which their living statues could move. The ‘Grecian’ aesthetic was, rather, a site for stasis, poise, balance and grandeur, while the ‘oriental’ was exotic, flowing, rhythmical and wild.72
The class-coding of activities and cultural products is a mysterious process, but those suggestive of ‘low’ class occupations such as sex work and manual labour, are often seen as ‘low-brow’. Activities which stretch or overstretch contemporary mores, as did erotic dancing, nude posing and weightlifting, were also seen as thrilling and entertaining. It is their flirtation with the borders of the forbidden, the edge of control, that made them so. The classical frame, connoting calm, control and rationality, can frame the forbidden and uncontrolled, ‘low’ form of entertainment, making it palatable for a broad cross-section of the consumer base.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the classical idiom also connoted enlightenment and progressive modernity in opposition to old-fashioned Christian views.73 The strength and beauty performances discussed in this chapter never achieved total acceptance in polite society, either as a spectacle or as a career, but their popularity and (sometimes) barely credible attempts to bestow respectability on them by applying a classical veneer, with or without fig leaves, allowed for the thrilling spectacle of beautified bodies, tensed or in repose, to enter the constantly shifting and hungry commercial marketplace.