BERLIN.- At the dawn of the last century, photographs of nudes could be found everywhere. The exhibition The Naked Truth and More Besides presents the astonishing diversity of photographic depictions of the disrobed human body that existed around this time. It was an age in which the foundations were laid for the development in the public domain of an extremely varied type of image, which, more than any other continues to inform the world in which we live today.
Most striking of all, the photographic nude appeared as a reproducible medium on postcards, cigarette cards, posters, in magazines and in advertising, as inspiration for artists and an incentive for sportsmen, as instructional material, and as collectors items. From the vast array of material, it is possible to identify several distinct groups that fall under such headings as: the mass produced, visual pleasures (arcadias, eroticism, and pornography), the body in the eye of science (ethnography, motionstudy photography, medicine), the cult of the body (reform movements especially in German-speaking countries naturism, and staged nudes from the world of sport and variety shows), and, of course, the nude in the artistic context (art academies and the Pictorialist tradition of fine-art prints). The most important characteristic of the image of naked people during this time is the inseparability of nude photographic production and reproduction.
The trade or exchange in nude photographs was widespread across the whole of Europe. This is reflected in the exhibition, which not only features many treasures and rare finds from the Kunstbibliotheks own Collection of Photography, but also includes important loans from several European institutions, ranging from the Bibliothèque nationale de France to the Police Museum of Lower Saxony.
A Commodity Market The Machinery of the Nude
Since the invention of photography, the unclothed human body has been positioned sitting, standing and reclining in front of the camera. Large numbers of nude images, avidly pursued by censors, were in circulation as of the middle of the 19th century. By around 1900 nude photography had broken into the public sphere. Starting in 1880, photographs had become easier to produce and reproduce. They began to flood the market in various printed forms: alongside stereoviews, cartes de visite and single prints, nudes could now be found on postcards, trading cards, autograph cards, posters and in magazines, books and films. Nude photographs were promoted, ordered, sold and sent. They were published for a large audience under the guise of artistic or academic activity, and peoples viewing habits, their gaze on the naked body their own or someone elses began to change. In this process it became clear that photography played a significant role in the marketing of the naked body, but also in peoples self-understanding. Todays arbitrary use of scantily-clad models to advertise goods is but one phenomenon that continues what was emerging with the visual material of the turn of the 20th century.
"For Artistic Purposes Only Model Studies and Photographic Academies
Nude pictures were reaching the public as photographs after nature. In the process, the artistic content or the intended use of the photographs was always emphasized. If we were to judge by the quantity of materials said to be produced solely for artists, then the largest professional group around 1900 would have been composed of them. For artistic purposes only was the password to uncensored production of nude photography. For many artists, photographic depictions actually did replace calling in live models. Art academies created a reference collection with nude studies. In many cases, works of painting or sculpture can be directly traced back to a particular photograph. Taken in classrooms that tended toward sobriety, most of the poses were borrowed from the art-historical cannon. Countless Venus and Apollo figures, cherubs, Atlases, Horatii, Graces and boys in the classical style populate the portfolios of the period. A practice of child nudes developed in the slipstream of the photographic academies. Ostensibly, these were created to show the angelic innocence of children of all ages.
Photographers also documented classes in studios and at academies. Thus we see photographs of entire student groups with their nude model, and there are also fine examples of the triad of artist, model and work.
(Visual) Yearnings Ideals from Arcadia
The unclothed body was first and foremost an object of erotic associations, and they were rendered by photography in more or less subtle ways. While a large audience enjoyed the Arcadian idylls of Sicily without coming into a conflict with the law, there was likely an even larger public buying the goods under the table or only per order, potentially becoming guilty of immorality.
Under Wilhelm II, male friendships were cherished as pillars of the system. Homosexuality, by contrast, was the subject of heated debate, its reception mixed. With this in mind, the vast array of potentially homoerotic photographs that were produced is revealing.
Wilhelm von Gloeden counts among the best-known practitioners of a kind of nude photography that gave voice to longings for an idyll that was generally Mediterranean or classical in nature. His photographs enjoyed tremendous commercial success around 1900. Numerous fellow photographers, most of them anonymous, began to photograph young and old satyrs, Ephebes, Apollos and shepherd boys and girls, staging the journey to Arcadia for the camera. Their images were published in such places as the first homoerotic magazine Der Eigene alongside poems, prose and essays. At the same time, these nude photographs were added to ethnographic collections (for example as Sicilian folklore), were discussed in the medical context and were used by (body) reformers to communicate an ideal.
Vividly Immoral Censored and Pornographic Photography
Since the invention of photography, photographs have been produced that are erotic or pornographic in nature. Crude or more sophisticated fashions, fantasies, means of distribution and censorship changed depending on the period. Around 1900, censorship in Germany generally went hand in hand with the so-called Lex Heinze, a newly added paragraph that forbade public exhibition of material classified as immoral. When enforced, the censorship effort resulted in the impounding by police of thousands of images from individual distribution businesses and studios. But in the face of the new, ever-growing production of nude photographs, the aim of gaining the upper hand over the flood of images was destined to fail.
Material from private collections is rare today but it would have been found in a large number of ordinary households. Aficionados put together albums in which they showed their predilections using a combination of photographs, drawings or caricatures, and sometimes writing. Even the police kept an exemplary inventory of nude photography which they collected in albums. In Germany there remains only the album from the Police Museum of Lower Saxony, whose large format, elaborately stamped leather binding, and careful arrangement of the diverse material make it clear just how significant nude photography was to the guardians of the law, too.
"The photographic plate is the retina of scholars The Nude Body in Science
A great number of scientific fields made use of photography in their systematic mapping out of the visible world. The naked body was measured, compared and assessed. Norms were defined and aberrations shown.
The new, photographically mediated consciousness of physical constitutions made itself felt in the way people saw themselves and their contemporaries. But the seeming objectivity of the medium also abetted discriminatory views.
The photography of movement played a particular role in the photographic experiments that sought to describe and unravel the human body in all its aspects. Special devices were used to record the consecutive positions of motor activities. In addition to movement in everyday life and in sports, photographers also documented freely invented movement and movement resulting from disease. Eadweard Muybridge and Ottomar Anschütz together with Albert Londe count among the best-known representatives of the photographic anatomy study and the systematic recording of movement.
Using special equipment, photographers provided physicians with illustrations of diseases and physical ailments. Image material was gathered on a regular basis and used in medical research and teaching. The often highly suggestive visual language of the time is also reflected in scientific publications. Many of the diagnostic findings and display formats from around 1900 seem outdated today.
When photography became more compatible with travelling, ethnographers brought back to Europe a large number of photographs of the sometimes unclothed inhabitants of colonies they were visiting and exploring. And as the ethnographic nude became more pervasive, posing for the camera became more common. Postures and props were modeled on recognized artworks as well as ideas about foreign cultures that were prevalent in Europe. Photographic comparisons were designed to emphasize particular characteristics of ethnic groups or body types: here, technical tricks, such as using different lighting, backgrounds and poses, came into play. This kind of image material fueled chauvinist and racist delusions, which became widely published.
"Naked People a Cheerful Future Nude Photography and the Cult of the Body around 1900
At the turn of the century, questions about the body were quickly gaining in importance. Were corsets desirable? The photographs of corset marks on naked female bodies argue against them. What good was exercise? Photographs of trained naked bodies documented the benefits. What did a normal person look like, and what did the ideal body look like? With nude photography printed in numerous magazines and books, people began to develop an eye for these matters. With more and more images becoming available, people became more discerning when it came to their body versus foreign bodies. The body could be compared and evaluated. Ideals spread through powerful imagery and gained an increasing influence on individual body culture.
During the reform movement people, especially those in the German Empire, were drawn to the open air. They enjoyed so-called light baths, whose benefits were discussed at length and proven with photographs. An emerging nudism used photography to demonstrate a deliberately relaxed association with one another. Scantily clad or unclothed, stars soon had their pictures taken onstage, becoming famous when their images were used in advertising and turned into items of mass distribution. Their postcards and cartes de visite were precursors of the pin-up. Several of these images bring to mind hippies of the 1960s and 70s. Yet, among the nudists of the turn of the century were also publishers such as Richard Ungewitter, whose racist theories, based in folk identity, lent decidedly ideological undertones to the nude images they used in their argumentation.
Passions of Art Photography Pictorialist Nudes
Beginning in the 1890s many photographers sought to elevate their craft to the status of art with the aid of particular printing techniques and strategies of image creation. Nude photography, certainly a pleasurable pastime for such ambitious art photographers as the so-called Pictorialists, produced a wide variety of motifs. In the prestigious magazine Camera Work, Alfred Stieglitz published a vast number of such images, including works by Robert Demachy, Constant Puyo, Heinrich Kühn, Annie Brigman and Edward Steichen. Among the Pictorialist nudes are expressive miseen- scenes, some of them self-portraits of the photographers, whose subject matter was by turns poetic and symbolic. Besides this work, there certainly are images that are conventionally pleasant or academic and that stand out from the common material mostly due to their high print quality. Their pictorial techniques serve an atmosphere of everything from playful coquetry to dramatic religiousness. As the clearly preferred pose of wrestlers was that of a poet or thinker, Auguste Rodins sculpture The Thinker can be seen as bringing together the esthetics of sculpture, Pictorialism and athlete photography.