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Feminist Nacktkultur
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Feminist Nacktkultur

Bess Mensendieck

A major sector of Nacktkultur regarded nudism as an aspect of feminism and as a force promoting a new, modern identity for women. Many among this sector adapted the body pedagogy doctrines of American physician Bess Mensendieck (1864–1957), whose book Körperkultur der Frau (1906) exerted a pervasive influence over German women gym instructors into the 1930s. Mensendieck, based in Vienna, believed that nudity was fundamental in enhancing women's body consciousness, which motivated all activity that made the female body strong, healthy, and beautiful. She quoted Nietzsche to her students: "Beauty is not a mere accident. . . . [A] mere discipline of the senses and of the thoughts alone amounts to almost nothing. Therein lies the great mistake of German teaching, which is entirely illusory. One must first discipline the body. . . . It is important for the destiny of nations and of humanity, that one should start culture from the right point—not the soul, as was the fatal superstition of priests and half-priests, but the body" (It's Up to You, 37). In 1909 Maria Lischnewska, an officer of the feminist League for the Protection of Mothers, contended that the "new woman" expected not only legal equity but also opportunities for nude gymnastics and nude sunbathing in the public schools, a position more radical than that assumed by any other major apologist for Nacktkultur (Soden 45). Mensendieck herself worked to create a network of disciples who would form private schools that transmitted her ideas in a kind of summer-camp environment; indeed, it was in just such an environment that feminist nudism flourished, although it was not until after the war that this peculiar manifestation of feminism achieved a powerful hold on the imagination of bourgeois girls. The publications of the Mensendieck cult were much less grandiose in their ideological


program than those of male Nacktkultur, but their attitude toward nudity was much more complex.

Mensendieck was a student of the American physical culturalist Genevieve Stebbins, who developed a feminine mode of physical expression patterned on the body semiotics of the French theorist Francois Delsarte (1811–1871). But Mensendieck departed from this "classical" tradition of bodily education by linking the cultivation of a woman's personality to the efficient and beautiful performance of ordinary, practical actions. More than any other physical educationalist, Mensendieck tied nudity and the beautiful image of the body to commonplace tasks and objects in daily life. She urged women to think scientifically about their bodies as "machines" of liberation; the expressive power of the body as a whole depended on the strengthening of different parts of the body, from head to toe, in ways that were specific to their functions. Accordingly, in her 1906 book, which remained virtually unchanged in its ninth edition (1925), she introduced fifty-three exercises, each designed to strengthen a particular part of the body, with all movements controlled by a "correct" posture of equilibrium. A peculiarly feminine feature of Mensendieck's system was what Artus (9) calls a "principle of reserved strength": a woman signified bodily power not through demonstrations of strength or muscle-flexing but through economy of movement—for example, by completing an action or signifying an attitude by moving only an arm rather than her whole body. The total strength of the female body was difficult to measure when its movements remained localized in relation to an optimum state of equilibrium.

Mensendieck relied on photography to develop in her students a comparative analytic approach to bodily performance. Photos showed a woman performing the same task incorrectly, correctly, and then (sometimes) wearing clothes. Her English-language book, It's Up to You (1931), provided a good example. The same young woman posed nude for all the photos (although prudish American censorship laws required the publisher to paint a skimpy bikini over her body). Facing each photo was an elaborate caption analyzing the image and the mechanics of the bodily action. These actions included, to name but a few, standing, standing while talking on the phone, washing one's face at a bathroom sink, reaching for an object on a shelf, stooping, ironing, reading while sitting, leaning forward at a desk, carrying a tray, lifting a baby, and looking over one's shoulder. Although she strongly contextualized the nude body by comparison with Surén—who in Deutsche Gymnastik had depicted nude male gymnastics "in the home" in relation to an empty white background—Mensendieck consistently presented the nude woman alone or before mirrors. Nor did she associate nudity much, if at all, with nature or outdoor activity; indeed, she displayed a very confined, or perhaps excessively immediate, perception of the relation between movement and space. Her hostility toward drill techniques


also betrayed a limited perception of relations between time and movement. Music had no function in her system: "Physiologic rhythm is not, however, to be confused with musical rhythm. It is the outcome not of an adaptation of bodily rhythm to musical rhythm, but of an intelligent obedience of the body to its own inherent laws of movement" (It's Up to You, 35). It is therefore somewhat surprising that her work held peculiar fascination for women who wanted to become dancers. But Mensendieck revealed how "everyday" movements could possess a strange, poetic expressive power quite as compelling as anything in ballet.

Mensendieck succeeded in establishing an elaborate network of schools in Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia, the Mensendieck-Bund. But when war broke out she had to return to New York City, where she coordinated the introduction of her method into finishing schools in several U.S. cities and promoted the International Mensendieck League. On her return to Europe in 1921, she discovered that the women she had taught to teach her ideas had modified them, even though they claimed to be teaching the "Mensendieck system." She reestablished herself in The Hague; then, in 1926, a Copenhagen newspaper published an interview with her in which she accused the Germans of misusing her ideas and name. She reiterated her attitude during an unannounced visit to Hamburg, where she denounced educator Hedwig Hagemann. But at a lecture in Berlin, she changed her tone and blamed the widely reported "misunderstandings" on the press. Closer questioning of her, however, revealed her bitter sense of betrayal, although none of the people she denounced believed they had done anything to discredit or misuse her system (Hilker 48–54). Mensendieck had not introduced any significant changes in her system since 1896, but her students modified it to accommodate social-cultural realities that had changed for them, if not for Mensendieck. Her Berlin lecture seemed to them to disclose a "cold" attitude toward the body, and after 1926 her influence in Germany steadily waned. According to a 1926 article in the impressive journal Gymnastik, body culture pursued "work whose aim is not the most perfect or painfully exact performance of exercises, but the development of a person to his purest and freest form" (Hilker 54).

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.

Dora Menzler

Nude dance in Weibliche Körperbildung emerged more as a figment of romantic fantasy than as a serious mode of performance that modern society could accommodate. The intensifying eroticism resulting from the nude performance of dance or dancelike movements could well jeopardize the innocence feminists wished to ascribe to their Nacktkultur . A more sobering view came from Dora Menzler, whose Mensendieck-influenced school in Leipzig went into operation about 1908. Die Schönheit deines Körpers (1924) linked her teaching to feminist efforts to construct a "new ideal of woman." Menzler thought too much nakedness could dissipate the physical vitality that feminist body culture sought to cultivate: "Nakedness must not lead to apathy" (41). Therefore, it was not necessary for women to perform all gymnastic activities in the nude. Though she did not specify what activities require nudity, the implication, derived largely from the photodocumentation, was that nudity was appropriate only in solo or group stretching exercises. By contrast, Surén, Koch, and Giese linked nudity to performance in


sports (such as archery, javelin, rowing, wrestling, and weightlifting) as well as dancing.

Menzler, however, asserted emphatically that "dances and dancelike movements which result in heightened emotion should in no case be performed naked." But who felt this ominous "heightened emotion"?—the performer? the (female?) spectator? or both? And what sort of dancelike movements actually heightened emotion? Was the power of these mysterious movements independent of the music that normally accompanied them? Virtually all Nacktkultur theorists implicitly assumed that dancelike movements projected a potent erotic significance independent of the narrative or musical contexts that motivated them. Yet the identity of these movements remained obscure, veiled in a rhetoric of ambivalence toward the unnamed consequences of nude dance. On the one hand, the theorists claimed that body culture reached its highest manifestations through dance and through nudity; on the other hand, they discreetly worried that any convergence of dance and nudity would lower the authority of either to construct a modern, liberated identity for humanity. A few representatives of feminist Nacktkultur resolved the paradox by blurring distinctions between dance and gymnastics, and even the photodocumentation in Menzler's book did not make clear the difference between gymnastic and dancelike movements. Although the bodies she depicted performed in untheatricalized, outdoor spaces, the actions were aesthetic in that they focused attention entirely on the bodies performing them, not on the movements themselves (Hagemann's abstractionism) nor on intragroup dynamics (Hagemann's homoeroticism). However, Menzler did include separate photos of men performing the same exercises as the women, suggesting that gymnastics was a way to resolve differences between men and women associated with feminism. With this strategy, nudity, dance, and gymnastics were subordinated to a peculiar image of a healthy, beautiful body that was desirable without being "seductive," without being a calculated assertion of desire, without being an invitation, a promise, a challenge, or a dare. It was a strategy that completely deflected the burden of desire away from the performer and onto the spectator. More precisely, it intimated, in spite of a ceaseless ambition to document it visually, that Nacktkultur innocence needed no spectator, that those who engaged in it were oblivious to the presence of a critical other.

But Menzler understood that artistic dance is always the embodiment of a powerful desire, a great "must." Giese and Hagemann called this desire erotic, but Menzler preferred to designate it as a "complete surrender" to one's own "bodily form" (42). For her, dance marked the division not only between male and female body culture but also between "healthy" and "dangerous" nudity, for dance, not nudity, was the controlling sign of desire in modern culture. All body culture, she proposed, strove toward the


highest phase (dance, not nudity) because (female) desire was much more complex (vulnerable to misunderstanding) than any condition of nakedness could signify. Thus, "nudity is only a means to an end," and that end was a state of liberation embodied above all by "artistic" dance: "We use nudity for the sake of body culture, but do not pursue body culture for the sake of nudity" (41). But this attitude did compromise the perception of modern identity as a condition of nakedness, unveiling, complete disclosure, fearless objectivity. When nakedness failed to become an end in itself, then all movement served an end that was "mysterious" because it was "hidden" from others. Such a compromise, however, implied a submission to the premodern notion of femininity as a "veiled" construction of identity.

Alice Bloch

Alice Bloch was much more technical yet more muscular in her approach to feminist Nacktkultur than either Hagemann or Menzler. Before the war she had studied with Mensendieck and, in Berlin, with Hedwig Kallmeyer, but her method also borrowed from Nils Bukh's "Swedish gymnastics" theories, which were highly popular in Germany before and after the war. Like Mensendieck, Bloch was a physician, specializing in orthopedics. After the war she founded the Alice Bloch Institute for Gymnastics, and in 1926 she published Harmonische Schulung des Frauenkörpers . Like Mensendieck, Bloch favored a medical-analytical approach to physical education, in which different exercises strengthened individual parts of the body. One chapter described in great detail the effects of gymnastic exercise on specific organs, physiological functions, and inner structures of the body. The descriptions of the more than one hundred exercises were likewise detailed in terms of performance and physiological effect. Bloch did not describe the emotional, pleasurable, or aesthetic experiences of the performer, nor did she discuss the impact of her method upon the image of the female body, but these matters were nevertheless relevant to a reading of her book. Whereas Hagemann made the whole-body swing the controlling principle of her method, Bloch grounded her program in a push-pull-thrust-twist principle of bodily strengthening. And whereas Mensendieck's "principle of reserved strength" required that each exercise strengthen a single part of the body, Bloch devised unusually complex exercises that strengthened different parts simultaneously. Her series of crawling exercises, for example, strengthened the back, the shoulders, the neck, the thighs, and the chest; the performer must not bend her back, must sometimes advance herself on her elbows instead of her hands, must sometimes advance herself with her hands perpendicular to her chest instead of in front of her, and must sometimes keep her head up and forward no matter how deep she bows on her elbows.


Complex as they were, none of Bloch's exercises was difficult to perform. She displayed a fertile imagination for bending exercises, and, unlike Mensendieck, Hagemann, Menzler, Surén, or Koch, she cultivated a large image of relations between bodily movement and space, constructing clever running, leaping, jumping, marching, climbing, throwing, and skipping exercises. Bloch also employed gymnastic wall bars, which were quite effective in revealing the muscled look of her students. Even more significant, some of her exercises worked only when performed in pairs or trios, supporting the idea that the strengthening of a body depends upon another body. But it is difficult to look at the numerous photographs (all taken by Willy Balluff), some of which show as many as six nude girls closely intertwined, without supposing that such gymnastics awakened in the performers an erotic affinity for each other, or at least an erotic excitement derived from not being afraid of this implication. Most of the nudity occurred outdoors, in a woodsy, parklike milieu; the interior poses took place in relation to the wall bars or before an uncontextualized white background. Despite her reluctance to explicate the emotional-aesthetic impact of her method, Bloch definitely pursued a dancelike vision of feminine movement. Though not as abstract or perhaps even as ecstatic as Hagemann's, her vision nevertheless manifested a greater diversity and strength of elasticity in the female body than that of any other theorist of Nacktkultur .


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