Fritz Giese and Hedwig Hagemann
Major propagandists for the Mensendieck cult included Fritz Giese, Hedwig Hagemann, Dorothee Günther, Maja Lex, Ellen Petz, Lisa Mar, Jarmilla Kröschlova, and Dora Menzler, and her disciples operated schools in numerous cities throughout Germany. Giese (1890–1935) was a highly cultivated Social Democrat and labor psychologist who published extensively in the area of "psychotechnics" and educational psychology. He
collaborated with Hagemann, director of a Hamburg body culture camp for girls, on a very successful book, Weibliche Körperbildung (1922), which also contained essays by physicians, dancers, and art historians to establish the wide-ranging implications of the Mensendieck system.
Like Surén, Giese and Hagemann assumed that nudity was the key to producing a bodily convergence of strength, health, and beauty; but they grounded nudist discourse in the rhetorics of science, history, and aesthetic theory rather than in the rhetorics of myth, nature, and national will. In one of his essays, Giese asserted that the purpose of nude gymnastics was not to produce a woman who embodied a state ideal or communal will but rather to develop in each woman a distinct personality, a highly unique identity that could adapt well to the complexities and instabilities of a modern reality driven above all by technology (108). Giese was not a utopian dreamer in the manner of Surén, Ungewitter, or even Koch; he was a rationalist for whom nudity was an element of technological mastery over the construction of identity at a historical moment in which differences between humans and machines were growing increasingly blurred. He therefore regarded the body not as a machine but rather as a mysterious organism needing constant exposure in order to find a distinct identity in the world. Peculiar to the whole Mensendieck cult was the perception of nudity as a sign of difference rather than unity between bodies. Difference operated above all through gender: basic anatomical differences between male and female bodies necessitated a difference between Weibliche Körperbildung and Männliche Körperbildung (1924), with sport and dance exemplifying the major distinction between the objectives of male and female body cultures. Yet a large contradiction between image and inscription complicated the ideology of Weibliche Körperbildung . Though Giese repeatedly stressed how Nacktkultur transformed bodies into unique personalities, the numerous photo illustrations showed nude women performing "correct" and "incorrect" daily activities, such as picking up objects from the floor, combing the hair, standing, breathing, walking, bending, arching, kneeling, stretching, holding schoolbooks, and assuming "graceful" poses. In other words, the photodocumentation did not demonstrate how nudity makes one different—it showed "correct" modes of performance that all female bodies should emulate. In another essay Giese linked feminist Nacktkultur to Taylorism (American time-motion industrial labor studies); the implication, apparently, was that differences in personality emerged not from a "correct" image of the body but from the enhanced productivity and efficiency of a body that performs actions "correctly."
Giese, however, reached more deeply when he suggested that anatomical differences were responsible for differences in drive structures and always worked toward the assertion and fulfillment of erotic desire: "All body culture is full of eroticism, especially that for women" (111). Whereas
the eroticism of the male body found its dominant metaphor in athletic prowess, the key metaphor for the eroticism of the female body was dance, as explained by Frank Thiess (79–102). The book reinforced this point by including several photographs (some nude) of dancers Clotilde von Derp and Ellen Petz, a brief essay by Petz, and repeated reference to dance by other contributors. The book as a whole intimated subtly but clearly that nothing exposed the structure of feminine erotic desire more powerfully than nude dancing and that the highest aim of feminist nudism was nude dancing, yet none of the contributors dared to answer any of the questions that made nude dancing more powerfully controversial than any other mode of performance. Where does nude dancing take place, and for whom? If nude dancing inevitably objectifies erotic desire, to what extent does objectification fulfill such desire for either the performer or the spectator? What happens when nude dancing transcends solo performance and begins to include partners or even groups of nude bodies? How does the erotic desire of a unique personality maintain itself when the performer dances nude with a nude male or, indeed, with another nude female? Can nude dancing ever transcend an idealizing of the body and achieve the grotesque, satiric form that Rita Aurel, Grit Hegesa, or Valeska Gert created for non-nude dances? In other words, does nude dancing occur only when the body of the performer conforms to a spectator-determined, normative image of beauty that does not provoke a strong tension between the erotic desire of the performer and that of the spectator? What relations between body, dancelike (aesthetic) movement, and erotic desire are "exposed" by nude dancing? In one of his ecstatic 1922 letters to dancer Niddy Impekoven, Fred Hildenbrandt stated flatly what the vast majority of dance photo imagery merely implied: a dance is beautiful because the dancer is beautiful (Briefe, 29).
After the acrimonious events of 1926, when Mensendieck denounced the misuse by the Germans, particularly Hagemann, of her name and system, Hagemann produced another book, Über Körper und Seele der Frau (1927), in which she clarified differences between the "old" and "new" "Mensendieck gymnastics." Though still quite respectful of her teacher, Hagemann was in no sense repentant. She declared that the needs of the postwar woman required that the "analytic, dissective approach of Bess Mensendieck dissolve into a synthetic, constructive working method" emphasizing the "totality of the body in relation to space" rather than the isolated perfection of individual body parts and muscles (47–48). Hagemann devised her own system of whole-body swinging exercises and introduced many dancelike movements, although she remained opposed to the use of music ("external stimuli") to motivate bodily movement. A peculiar feature of Hagemann gymnastics was the performance of movements on tiptoe to intensify contraction-and-release rhythms. Moreover, she insisted
that some nude exercises be performed outdoors in an idyllic natural setting, a requirement she felt further transformed Mensendieck gymnastics from a "luxury for privileged girls" into a liberation for "the woman wearied by the exertions of daily labor" (46).
Many of the photos in the book, taken by Olga Linckelmann and Gerhard Riebicke, showed a lone nude woman performing one of the numerous swing or spiral movements, but other photos showed nude women performing dancelike exercises in duos, trios, quartets, and one quintet, producing a distinctly homoerotic image of unity that was completely lacking in Mensendieck's iconography. Hagemann also suggested that mothers should be willing to appear naked before their children, for if they did not they perpetuated the oppressive sense of shame associated with the body and exacerbated by the glorification of errorless bodies in movies and mass media photographs (35–37). However, for the indoor photos of her own book, Hagemann set nude bodies against an uncontextualized black background, as if to emphasize the whiteness of the body (whereas Surén, using white backgrounds, had emphasized its bronzeness). But whether indoors or outdoors, the nude body in Hagemann's imagery appeared as a much more abstract form than in Mensendieck's task-oriented scenography. A more abstract image clearly was the object of Hagemann's program, as evidenced by the inclusion of schematic diagrams that provided highly abstract and exhilaratingly dynamic views of the whole-body swing movements guiding the exercise system (Figures 10 and 11). With the diagrams, rather than the photographs, one sees more clearly how modern movement toward abstraction is movement toward ecstatic freedom.