Body, Image, Context
Figure 1 projects a distinctly modern image of the female body and, moreover, a peculiarly German attitude toward the modernity of the body. Such an image of the body is impossible to find in photography—indeed, in the whole realm of visual arts—before 1920. The body of the woman seems to have no "context": suspended in a white void, the body demands that the viewer look at nothing but itself as an autonomous force, free of definition by anything external to it. The pose assumed by the woman is complex, dense with contradiction. The brazen nudity of her torso contrasts dramatically with the veiling of her face by the thrusting elbow. The upward reach of her left arm is in stark tension with the inward coil of her hidden face and right arm. The filmy skirt seems like a skin the woman sheds in her surge toward ecstatic autonomy, yet the choice of a diaphanous material suggests that the flesh itself is a kind of veil that conceals the "real" identity of the body, no matter how naked. Both the pose and the image idealize the muscular sleekness of the body and proclaim the newness of this quality by situating the body within a pure white zone that contains no contaminating sign of the past, no attachments to history. The modern body is, one might say, the context, the determining power of the space it chooses to inhabit: perception of the body determines the identity of the world, the reality external to the self. This decontextualization of the body implies that the more naked the body becomes, the more the body dominates perception, the more the body assumes an abstract identity. Modernity signifies a tendency toward abstractness of form, but this photograph is interesting because it discloses a powerful tension between the sensual materialism of the naked flesh and the abstractness of bodily form released by the nudity.
I begin with this image partly because it is a typical specimen of German modernist attitudes toward the body in the 1920s and partly because the historical identity of the image is also typical. The image appears in a book published in 1927, Tanzkunst und Kunsttanz, by Max Adolphi and Arno Kettmann, but the photograph is by Alfred Ohlen. The book consists almost entirely of Ohlen's beautiful photo portraits of female dancers from Ida Herion's dance group in Stuttgart. Two of the photos show dancers posing in the garden of a villa, and one depicts a male dancer. The remaining sixty pictures show different dancers in different costumes (or nude) assuming different poses against the white background. None of the dancers' identities is known. Indeed, almost nothing is known of Ida Herion, and Kettmann's four pages of text, completely given over to a glorification of "dance art and art dance" generally ("living body feeling and consciousness"), provide no information about either Herion or the people in the images. The title page merely remarks that Adolphi "supervised" the poses Ohlen photographed. Thus, though the image of dance casts a strong feminine aura through the profuse depiction of female bodies, all linked to Ida Herion's group, the view of dance is largely male. But the superior elegance of the photographs is self-sufficient: the bewitching beauty of the images, bodies, and poses implies that the reader does not need to know anything about the dancers, the image-makers, or even dance itself to find dance a liberating and satisfying vocation. And though female readers are far more likely than males to act upon the impulse to make dance a vocation, male readers can hardly help feeling that a woman's power to dance, to assert herself physically with the complexity of signification I have ascribed to Figure 1, is a modern, self-determined condition of her desirability.
The uniquely exquisite charm of Tanzkunst und Kunsttanz should not obscure the realization that the book is but one of a huge, unprecedented multitude of aesthetically distinctive dance and body culture publications produced in Germany between 1910 and 1935. The scale, diversity, and significance of dance and body culture in Weimar Germany in particular has never been adequately recognized, because any serious assessment entails the study of traces left by a great number of people as obscure yet distinctive as Ida Herion and her dancers. The tendency to reduce the Weimar dance culture to the activities of a few major figures—for example, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, and Rudolf Laban—gives a very incomplete view of how dance and attitudes toward the body produced a modern culture within a particular European social context. Indeed, the greatness of someone such as Mary Wigman appears even more mysterious when one views her achievements in relation to the complex spectrum of dance impulses defining the context in which she worked. Much of the powerful Weimar dance culture has been undeservedly forgotten because scholars cannot compile thick dossiers on many personalities and therefore cannot confine
their perception of dance to those manifestations (or documentations) of it that produce a life story about which one can write at length. But strong personalities are not always well documented, and in any case part of dance's intense appeal lies in its promise to free the body from modes of documentation that excessively stabilize it. The concept of dance is key to understanding dance culture, not dances themselves, for the vast majority of these have left so little trace that no one can reconstruct them. Even in the 1920s, before anyone could make any serious effort to record dancers, the concept of dance achieved its most pervasive and perhaps most seductive expression through images of dance staged specifically for photographers or other visual artists. Pictures of dancers and images of dance probably intensified public enthusiasm for dance to a much greater degree than did dance concerts themselves, for images of dance provided greater access to the spirit of the dancing body than concert performance permitted. In a 1957 television interview, the American dancer Ruth Page claimed that she taught herself to dance (ca. 1915) by cutting out pictures of dancers from theatre journals, pasting them on the walls of her room, and imitating the poses depicted (Page, Video Archives, tape 106).
By dramatic contrast, Anna Pavlova explains in her autobiography that her ultimately suicidal passion for dance resulted from her seeing, at the age of eight, a performance of the Sleeping Beauty ballet at the Marinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, around 1890 (Magriel 1–3). Perhaps no other dancer has ever done as much as Pavlova to awaken love for dance through dance performance itself; certainly no other dancer ever toured as widely, as intensely, or as successfully as she. One can say that with every performance she tried to reconstruct the ecstatic enchantment of the first time she saw the dancing body. This ambition to imbue the dancing body with the innocence of a child made her beloved everywhere. But innocence is convincing to the extent that it appears fragile, ephemeral, momentary; for Pavlova, this magical fragility depended not only on the delicate beauty of her body but also on the cultivation of the exquisite melancholy that made The Dying Swan (1907), choreographed for her by Michel Fokine, her signature work. Though Pavlova was extremely photogenic and hardly indifferent to the power of her image to build audiences, she never doubted that the authority of dance to restore innocence to the body lay entirely in the act of watching dance performances.
Moreover, her notion of dance performance was virtually untouched by modernist ideas of bodily movement: the body recovered its innocence insofar as the dancer projected an attitude toward the body which prevailed the first time one had seen, with a child's eyes, the enchanting beauty of the dancing body. The innumerable photographs of Pavlova displayed a more modernist sensibility than did her performances, in which she presented an "eternal," ethereal image of the (female) body hardly modified by any of
the modernist currents in movement theory that had emerged since 1900. She was an enormous inspiration, yet few of the multitudes she inspired actually regarded her as a model for their own ambitions in dance (Money; Lazzarini). Her dances suggested that the innocence (and melancholy) of the female body resulted from the dancer's complete submission to nineteenth-century ballet technique, which assumed that the female body, being a highly volatile and unstable force, preserved its magical innocence through an elaborate, powerfully institutionalized set of conventions governing every movement toward the ideal incarnation of feminine beauty. What made Pavlova great was the beautiful poignancy she brought to the pervasive and ambivalent perception of a fundamental tension, provoked by aesthetic movements of the body, between innocence and modernity.
The complex and very seductive body culture emerged in early-twentieth-century Germany questioned, though did not entirely dissolve, this tension between innocence and modernity. The relation between innocence and modernity was more complex (and ambiguous) in Germany than elsewhere because of German tendencies to link innocence with conditions of maturity and evolution rather than to a "lost," childlike state of perception. This ambition to present modernity as a condition of innocence depended on the situating of the body within elaborate philosophical frameworks, a persuasive metaphysical rhetoric. The concept of dance, for example, had to include more than the evidence of mere dances. Thus, the great theorist of bodily movement, Rudolf Laban, spoke of "the dance of flowers," "the dance of constellations," "the dance of peoples" (RL 150). Dance was a cosmic force that was only partially visible in dance performances as such. But when dance assumes this sort of metaphorical identity, its meaning, its power to liberate, derives as much from its image and from ideas about it as from witnessing dance performances themselves.
This point receives some initial support from Figure 2. Like Figure 1, it is of a dancer from the Ida Herion group, but it comes from a different book, Getanzte Harmonien (1926), and is the work of a different photographer, Paul Isenfels. The book was popular enough to run through seven editions in one year. It contains 120 photos, and the dancers assume a much wider array of poses and costumes than in Tanzkunst und Kunsttanz; the book also contains more nude poses, more group poses (two women and one man; two men and a woman; three women; four women; one man and seven women), and far more images of male dancers. But the major difference between the Isenfels imagery and the Adolphi is that Isenfels views the dancers within a highly specific physical context. In all the images, the dancers pose within the luxurious rooms and garden of a wonderful neoclassical villa. Figure 2 typifies the visual complexity of these images, which present the dancing body as the decisive phenomenon effecting a "harmonious" reconciliation of nature (the garden) and monumentally civilized
architecture. The woman opens her body to the sunlit garden yet remains a shadow to the viewer. Isenfels likes setting the bodies against stone or marble-tiled surfaces engraved with elegant geometric designs, as if to blur the distinction between organic and inorganic forms. He photographs the dancers on stone stairways, on stone balustrades, in stone archways, against stone columns, or through stone colonnades, and it seems that the dancers are neither entirely indoors nor entirely outdoors but somehow poised between "inner" and "outer" zones of being. Isenfels intensifies this perception in numerous images, adroitly manipulating delicate shadow effects and making exquisite use of sunshine to create luminous backlighting of the bodies. But in spite of the obvious preoccupation with compositional elegance, the viewer always sees the body as a phenomenon that resists abstraction, that does not need to be seen as anything other than itself. The neoclassical architecture connects the body to a grandiose sign of tradition or history, in great contrast to the Adolphi photos, which establish the modernity of the body by freeing it from any visible historical context.
Yet all of the Isenfels images remain modern precisely because the bodies assume new poses and a bold new authority over the space. These dancers, with their supple gestures and sleek vulnerability, seem to have invaded this "old" space and imposed upon it a daring will to freedom—and the space accommodates them generously, luxuriantly. In all the photos by Adolphi or Isenfels, it is the body itself—through its poses, its nudity, or its relation to other bodies—that casts the controlling sign of modernity. Perhaps the visibility of this corporeal modernity in Figures 1 and 2 is due less to the photographic approaches of Ohlen or Isenfels than to an attitude toward the body absorbed by the dancers from their teacher, Ida Herion, whose identity is only slightly less obscure than that of her students. However, despite the lack of information regarding the people who produced these books, the images are significant for their power to link modernity to the body itself rather than to external signs such as masks, costumes, or decor. The latter is more obviously the case in Figure 3, depicting Ursula Falke in a pose from her dance The Prince (1925), or Figure 4, a Bauhaus image of Karla Grosch performing her Metal Dance (1929). Moreover, the difference between Ohlen's and Isenfels's ways of seeing the Herion dancers suggests a large degree of instability in the image of dance and of the modernity of the body. Prevailing attitudes toward the body did not create a unified vision of human identity but instead spawned contradictory strands of perception.