For the first time the Schwules Museum is devoting an exhibition honoring the special contributions made by certain gay photographers to the history of artistic nude photography during the period 1940 through 1969. By the end of the Thirties weightlifting and bodybuilding had developed into a widely popular sport in the United States. In promoting this new trend, it was mostly gay photographers who developed a new way of presenting the models in bodybuilding competitions and magazines. They artfully posed the athletes and used sophisticated lighting normally reserved for film stars. The result was a combination of manly strength with feminine grace. For the most part the photographers themselves had worked in the fields of fashion, film, dance or opera as models, dancers or photographers. By transferring the artificially of their previous work to the domain of weightlifting they achieved a novel symbiosis. The world of sport was now combined with the artistic taste and knowledge of educated homosexual aesthetes in the pursuit of male beauty and perfection. Perfection such as this means no less than a balance of contradictory forces, the combination of Ying and Yang, of male and female, of strength and weakness, of dominating and serving, of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, of clarity and sensuality. As choreographers of bodybuilding these gay photographers were practising their traditional social function as catalysts, as the grand wizards of transformation, of adaptation, of lives lived underground, of mimicry, of those who serve as holy shamans and preservers of knowledge in the shadows of perfection. They shaped their photographs exuberantly as in Jayne (a.k.a. Wayne) County’s song which she also performed in Berlin around 1980: “Are you man enough to be a woman! Are you woman enough to be a man!”
By the 1930″s in the United States Edwin Townsend, Al Urban, Gebbé, Lon of New York, Spartan and Kovert of Hollywood were already shaping the new genre of bodybuilding photography. This development was given new life by a younger generation of artists such as Bob Mizer, Bruce of LA, Don Withman, Russ Warner, Douglas of Detroit and many others. These mostly homosexual photographers used their mostly heterosexual models like malleable clay. Their bodies were turned, their limbs twisted, their hands and legs spread apart, like ballerinas they were forced into extreme poses. The models displayed themselves and their bodies without inhibition – not merely their muscles but their entire nakedness. They were completely aware of their sexual presence. A symbiosis of mutually complementary interests was achieved in the acknowledgement, admiration and erotic self-realization that took place between model and artist. Homosexuals used a fashion trend such as bodybuilding to find their own self-realization and at the same time to make a contribution to mainstream culture. Using heterosexual bodies they choreographed gay worlds in the tradition of the tableaux vivants. As masters of stylization they participated in a socially relevant theme comparable to contemporary photographers who direct masses of naked people in order to capture them in photographic images.
The exhibition will also focus on the most important contributions made by the European pioneers of nude photography since 1900: works by Wilhelm von Gloeden, the Ballets Russes, German expressionist dance of the Twenties, acrobatic strongmen from the turn of the century, Michelangelo’s Ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, academic nudes, female movie stars and pin-ups, the nudist movement in Germany, Hirschfeld’s Theory of the Middle Sex, pictures of female impersonators and transvestites, Winckelmann’s passion for Greek sculpture, photographs from the German gay movement in the years 1897 through 1933.
One high point in the stylization of American bodybuilding photography is the depiction in 1950 of physical contact between two men. Athletes photographed in sporting competitions or boxing matches are depicted so as to become metaphors for gay love. As it was mostly the tradition only to show physical proximity between men in aggressive sports so it now became possible for the photographers to expand the genre into their own field of interest. Physical touching supposedly photographed during a contact sport could be blatantly erotic while still conforming to the prudery of the era. In the United States, if there had been a softening of social attitudes in many areas during the Second World War and immediately after 1945 at least a cautious Coming Out of gay organizations, an enormous retreat would take place during the McCarthy era. Alfred Kinsey’s researches would cause a scandal when his report was published in 1948. Apparently, one third of American men had had homosexual experiences during their lifetime, 10 percent of American were supposedly homosexual.
In spite of or because of these reverses and the increasing censure of the day, some of the gay photographers began in the mid-Fifties to intensify the gay content of their pictures. The sexual element becomes a genuine component of art and a mirror of society. The unity of body, spirit, soul and sexuality experiences a reawakening. The beauty of sexual arousal and merging is lived, staged, shown and depicted as it was for example in parts of the art history of India, in antiquity or in the world of primitive peoples. In the work of Bruce of LA it’s mostly a matter of static pictures that show the sexual arousal of individual models. With Bob Mizer there are entire sequences of activities in small films and tableaux. These pictures served as a battle cry against the social prudery of the times and were therefore enormously political statements. However, at that time they couldn’t be publicly shown or published.
For the most part, they exist today only in copies made after 1970 of prints that were made from the original negatives. At the time they were created they could only be shown or sold in secret. They bear witness at a high artistic level to the integration of the sexual into the world of art. Without these brave antecedents in the Fifties the works of a Mapplethorpe and other gay artists after the liberation of 1969 would be unthinkable.
Around 200 works by roughly 40 artists will be shown. They are all from the Sternweiler Collection which comprises more than 3000 photographs that until now have never been shown.
Curator: Anton Stern