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Sandow, Hercules and gladiators
Attitudes towards male and female posers and bodybuilders were different, but neither was free from scandal. Eugen Sandow’s use of the classical idiom has attracted attention elsewhere;43 here we ask why he was able to convert his act into a field of scientific study, of which he was made a ‘Professor’, i.e. Physical Culture, and how the ancient world featured in this achievement. Sandow was the first man in the modern world to sculpt his own physique following classical statuary, which attracted him aesthetically, as his template.
As a boy, so the story goes, Sandow marvelled at the beauty of the statues, when on holiday with his father, and was inspired by the representations of the male body.44 Whether or not this story is true, it is the foundation myth of all physical culture. Since classical statues resided in the houses of the very rich and in the cities of the Grand Tour, most ordinary people did not see the statues in statuary form. They knew them from their reproductions in print, photo, plaster cast or figurine. Sandow’s inspiration was supposed to come straight from antiquity, via the city of Rome.
For Sandow, as for many others, marble statues provided a model for physical perfection, simultaneously highlighting one’s own physical defects and providing a goal to strive towards. The examples of Sandow and his imitators in the Music Halls before the war showed that it was possible to become a Hercules, for example, or a Discobolus. Magazines and books offered ‘before-and-after’ photographs of ordinary people. The scrawniest youth could, the fitness books promised, become a Greek statue by training for just a few minutes a day.
This came at a historical moment of acute physical self-consciousness. In Manchester in September 1918, Prime Minister Lloyd George advocated increased state control over the health and fitness of the people: ‘I solemnly warn my fellow-countrymen that you cannot maintain an A1 Empire with a C3 population. Unless this lesson is learned the war is in vain’.4’ The fitness of the people was of national concern. There was a crisis of British masculinity. The mettle of the nations of Europe had been tragically tested in the Great War, in which the pride of the British nation had fallen in a new and newly mechanical kind of warfare (see further below, pp. 496-7). There was a sense that the cream of manhood had been killed, leaving behind only those who returned shell-shocked or had been unfit for military service. The roots of this crisis lay further back. The Boer Wars, and other conflicts in the empire, had begun to show that British masculinity was not capable of upholding the empire in the face of new war technologies,46 especially tanks, poison gas and explosives. The response, bizarrely, was to seek a new model for virility in classical antiquity.
As Carden-Coyne puts it, ‘In response to the physical, psychic and cultural trauma of war, bodybuilding sought to heal the pain of the immediate past through the creation of a new civilised future, only now based upon a dialogue between modernism and classicism’.47 But even a modern Hercules cannot defend himself against bullets, explosives and gas. Bodybuilding in the classical idiom ‘mythologised the corporeality of the war experience’.48 Physical culture helped the nation to heal by encouraging individuals to pump iron. One of the loudest voices in the promotion of physical fitness was Sandow’s. His system was already popular, since he had been successfully touring the music halls and theatres of Britain throughout the 1890s (Figure 18.7).
Before Sandow, even the strongest 19th-century prize-fighters did not have the defined musculature of Greek statuary. Many believed that these statues were inaccurate, idealised images which were in reality impossible to develop.
FIGURE 18.7 Eugen Sandow, by Benjamin J. Falk Public Domain image reproduced by courtesy of Library of Congress.
Fashionable men still regarded muscles as a marker of low social standing, developed by physical labour and heavy lifting. Before Sandow’s popularisation of a more scientific approach (isolating individual muscles and working them carefully in front of a mirror), the techniques and basic apparatus for sculpting the physique towards the ‘Greek’ ideal did not exist, but his performances were always discussed in terms of classical statuary.
Sandow was popular across the classes up and down the British Isles, not to mention in America and the furthest reaches of the empire. On tour his performance would draw large crowds to music halls, theatres, town halls and Mechanics’ Institutes. An excellent publicist, his presence often caused a stir in the local press. In the 1890s, Sandow’s physique was incessantly likened to classical marble sculpture,49 a comparison he fostered in his promotional material, the titles of his poses and feats and by dusting his skin with pale chalk before performances.
Sandow’s specialism was posing, but his classically themed strength acts were impressive. ‘Another feat’, Sandow explains in his best-selling Strength and How to obtain it (1897), ‘is performed lying prone on the ground. From this position I lift with one hand a Roman chariot, rising upright with it and afterwards lying down again. This brings the whole of the muscles into play’.’" He continues, to describe his
Roman horse exercise. Sitting on a horse and so bending my back as to throw my head over the animal’s tail I raise at arms’ length heavy weights from the ground. Next I pick up two men, one after another, raising them over my head and seating them in the saddle.’1
His identification with Hercules and use of‘Roman’ props acted as a high-cultural anchor, earning his thrilling circus spectacles a modicum of respect. They also put his ‘respectable’ and aspirational audience at ease; those who could afford them and needed the assurance (like W.T Stead) could rest back into their expensive seats assured that they were enjoying a cultural activity rather than voyeuristic trash. Every aspect of the show—the classical music, the names and classical provenance of the pose sequences—was designed to raise his performance from its big-top origins and engage people across the classes. In this it was successful. With Sandow’s new respectable formula, the stage-show act of the brutish strongman was reinvented to defy the social divisions of class, occupation and sex by attracting a surprisingly broad demographic: ‘for even the highest price seats were well filled, and the popular parts of the place were crowded to overflowing. There was a considerable sprinkling of the fair sex in the audience’.52