Yale University, History, USA
The period between the two world wars experienced a ubiquitous interest in classical anatomies. The redefining of the body as beautiful, whole, and inviolable took place in several social and cultural discursive spaces. After the Great War, the reworking of the physique was broadly seen in the arts, medical sciences, sports culture and the aesthetics of political programs.
As historian George L. Mosse decisively explained, in the late 18th century classical bodies drawn from Greek culture—first and foremost the male body—became the representation of European societies and nations such as Germany, France, and England. Modern masculinity expressed itself in a white, lithe, muscular, and young athletic body connected with moral qualities such as justice, balance, and resilience. Later in time, these stereotypes became hegemonic and society at large adopted them in opposition to other counter-stereotypes considered decadent and abnormal. In the early 20th century, for an artist such as Pablo Picasso, to look at the bodies of archaic and classical Greek art meant several things. First, Picasso ventured to reinvent Western art, departing from its foundational basis. Second, he reinvented himself in front of the exhaustion of his cubist experiment. Third, he fed the taste of his new bourgeois audience in the time of the Diaghilev’s ballets. Finally, he was able to take part in a movement after the Great War that understood the classical body as a site of healing and mourning. In the realm of everyday life, these bodies had no less complex appropriations and, in the interwar years, the classical configuration of the body ended up symbolizing the fascist era. Acting as a civic religion, fascist and communist regimes adopted the aesthetics of the classical heritage and used them as an important part of their political programs. For instance, the Greek ideal was one of the elements of Nazi German education, and the standard to measure racial differences by science and eugenics such as in the theories of Hans F. K. Günther published in his Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (1922).
This paper seeks out a critical examination of the complex meaning of these bodies and their images in relation to politics by focusing on several examples from the end of World War I to the rise of fascism. What is the meaning of this common interest in different European traditions and political forces? Is the perfunctory dichotomy between progressive and reactionary aesthetics regarding classicism in the 20th century still valid? How do high and popular cultures represent and perform these bodies? What is the trace left by this last wide classical reframing of the white body in today’s culture?