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Empire of Ecstasy. Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. (Reviews).

Empire of Ecstasy. Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. By Karl Toepfer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xvii plus 422pp. $50.00).

The decades from 1890 to the 1930s were the period of "high modernity," marked by unprecedented experimentation not only in literature and the visual arts, but also in lifestyle. Dance all too frequently drops out of discussions of this seminal epoch, yet as Karl Toepfer's fascinating study Empire of Ecstasy demonstrates, dance is a well-suited medium for exploring the complex impulses and cultural constellations that comprised modernism. For the modern dance forms that emerged in those years powerfully united artistic experimentation with attempts to create new modes of personal identity and communal life. Moreover, modern dance challenged traditional hierarchies of high and low culture, not only through the influences of popular music, whether folk, tango, or jazz, but through the participation of unprecedented numbers of people in dance schools, rhythmic gymnastics, and the like. While elements of these phenomena can be observed in all western European countries and North America during the time, it is Toe pfer's claim that in Germany, modern dance developed in uniquely close relationship to a "body culture" that reached levels of intensity and mass involvement unparalleled in any other national context.

Dance and body culture converged on the pursuit of ecstasy, joyful release from the constraints of modern society and bourgeois convention. Advocates of the body culture hoped to create a unified ecstatic movement that would break the iron cage of modernity. However, as Toepfer's richly detailed account shows, the body culture produced instead a plurality of subcultures, competing theories, and schools of dance and body movement. He attributes this pluralism to the instabilities inherent in the appeal to the naked body itself as the crucial signifier of modernity. A number of basic ambiguities run through the discourses and practices that Toepfer presents. Was the naked body 'modern' because it exposes primitive and instinctual forces that shatter convention or because nakedness is itself the condition of modernity? Some dancers and theorists sought to accentuate the materialism of the body, its visceral reality, while others, like Rudolf Laban or the director of dance at the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer, explore d the body's potential for abstract form. The ecstatic body could be the sign of the irrational, connecting the person to blood, libido, and self-transcendence in community. Or ecstasy could be gained through rational movement. This impulse animated the founder of rhythmic gymnastics, Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, as well as the feminist pedagogue Bess Mensendieck, who sought to emancipate women through the rationalization of everyday motions. At least one contemporary commentator recognized Mensendieck's proximity to Taylorism and the fine line between liberation and regimentation. Toepfer holds that the naked body also evoked a tension between innocence and modernity, although the tension is perhaps better seen as a conflict between innocence and experience within modernity. Isidore Duncan's 'barefoot modernism' and Anita Berber's debauched bohemianism both circulated around modernism's search for a lost true self, while Mary Wigman rejected early Nacktkultur's aura of innocence in favor of a modernity steeped in tragedy, exposure, and loss.

The tension between innocence and experience ultimately revolved around eroticism. Once again, the body proved an unstable signifier. The publisher and psychoanalytically influenced theorist Ernst Schertel insisted that nudity always carries an erotic charge, and his writings probed the circuits of desire between spectator and performer. Others, like the sun-worshipping nudist Hans Suren, sought to neutralize sexuality in favor of therapeutic or communitarian agendas, while Richard Ungewirter linked nudism to a reactionary racial ideal. Turning from the field of theory and the broad Nacktkultur to dance itself, Toepfer emphasizes that the question of eroticism was, if anything, even more charged. Though many modern dancers were willing to dance nude in the name of art, there was considerable unease about the accentuation of sexual difference and eroticization that nudity entailed. This anxiety was one aspect of the gender and sexual politics of dance. Although men dominated dance criticism and theory, and the audience for dance was equally male and female, it was almost exclusively women who performed and flocked to the growing number of schools. For women, modern dance was widely regarded as liberating. For men, modern dance, particularly in the nude, was viewed as feminizing. Toepfer does a fine job tracing the intricacies and contradictions of those gender dynamics in both the discourse and practices, as well as in the institutionalization of modern dance. He could have gone even further by relating men's anxieties to the crisis of masculinity that numerous historians have detected in the early decades of the century. (1)

Given the body culture's celebration of ecstatic movement, historians have tended to associate it with irrationalism, antimodernism, and the totalitarian movements of the inter-war years. Toepfer refuses to offer any grand thesis on the political meanings of body culture. For one thing, he argues for continuity across the divide of World War One, finding most of the elements of Weimar Nacktkultur and dance already emerging in the last decade of the Kaiserreich. For another, he stresses the pluralism of meanings that contemporaries attached to dance and body culture, in contrast to the Nazi's attempt to homogenize the body. The political ambiguities are most evident in choreographed mass performance, which became an immensely popular genre. While one immediately thinks of the Nazi spectacles filmed by Leni Riefenstal in the mid-1930s, Toepfer maintains that "during the 1920s the public consistently identified this aesthetic with leftwing or emancipatory political aims sponsored by the social democrats, the lab or unions, the Nacktkultur clubs, the gymnastic organizations, and liberal bourgeois cultural and religious associations" (301). He cautions that the scholar must look to the content of specific mass performances, not the form itself, to read the ideological message.

Empire of Ecstasy is a valuable contribution not only to dance history, but to the social and cultural history of twentieth-century Germany. The dozens of sections devoted to specific theorists, pedagogues, cranks, bohemians, and serious artists will provide fascinating details and many leads for scholars working on the history of gender, women's movements, the body, urban culture, and alternative culture. However, if the strength of the book lies in these finely drawn individual portraits, its weakness lies in the relative lack of broader contextualization. For example, Topfer speaks enticingly about the institutionalization of modern dance, the establishment of state subsidies for certain schools, and the development of accreditation criteria, but he does not pursue those trends in any depth. Likewise, the ideological and intellectual sources of body culture ate passed over too quickly. The connection between sun-worship and nudism, for example, had roots in the nineteenth-century fascination with myth and the neo-paganism that was, in fact, a European phenomenon as readily observed in Rupert Brooke's circle as in the counter-culture of Germany. More importantly, the rhetoric of ecstasy is saturated in references to the "Dionysian," yet Toepfer scarcely mentions Nietzsche and the pervasive influence he exercised upon the avant-garde. German philhellenism, of which Nietzsche was a rogue devotee, is also essentially absent from Toepfer's discussion, but the persistent appeal of classicism helps to explain the striking strength of German body culture. For that matter, more comparative study, especially in Scandinavia, is needed to substantiate the claim about German uniqueness. It was, for instance, a Dane, Jens Peter Muller, who established himself as the fitness guru of the belle epoque, purveying the body beautiful to enthusiasts as far-flung as Franz Kafka in Prague. Instead of exploring the intellectual, cultural, and social origins of German body culture, or seeking to weigh the strength of modem dance and b ody culture in Germany against its expression elsewhere, Toepfer suggests that their powerful appeal in Germany "has something to do with mysterious and as yet unidentified features of the German language itself, with the ways in which language constructs consciousness and thereby establishes some kind of inner or metaphysical space within the body" (385). This is a piece of mystifying rhetoric that one might expect from some of the more rhapsodic citizens of the empire of ecstasy. In a work of scholarship, it begs questions and falls below the high standard of research and analysis that is the hallmark of this otherwise excellent book.


(1.) For a recent discussion of that historical literature and an interesting application, see Gerald N. Izenberg, Modernism and Masculinity. Mann, Wedekind, Kandinsky Through World War 1 (Chicago. 2000).
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Author:Breckman, Warren
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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